Thanks mostly to Mstislav Rostropovich, more major cello concertos were written in the second half of the 20th century than in all of musical history before. The great Russian cellist, who died in 2007, gave the premieres of no fewer than 117 works by composers whose names read like a roll call of anybody who mattered in the postwar period.
For a short series of concerts Yo-Yo Ma brought together three of the most prestigious of these concertos. The programmes, devised with Michael Tilson Thomas, principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, paired music by Copland with the two concertos by Shostakovich and, as the culmination of the series, Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, to mark the composer’s centenary.
These were three composers whose lives overlapped (Britten knew each of the other two) and who shared a clear and direct musical language. That might not have been obvious, though, from this last of the concerts. Copland’s Inscape, written in 1967, finds the composer wrestling with the dry discipline of serialism. It is a hard nut to crack, dense as all 12-tone music must be but also stark – as if Copland’s open-air, American spirit has been locked up by a group of stern European intellectuals.
Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra is also uncharacteristically gritty. Rostropovich’s recording, with the composer conducting, remains a giant of a performance that is difficult to match in the concert hall, where the soloist can seem a lone, small voice. Yo-Yo Ma did not rely on power alone but used colour and detail to bring the music vividly to life. His playing was a stream of lyrical intensity, which gathered force during the cadenza and then, as if with the breaking of a dam, flooded unstoppably into the triumphant finale. With the LSO woodwind catching the raw sound of Britten’s wailing east coast gale, and the brass clipped and decisive, this was a performance of rare conviction.
To end, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra gave a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 that was no less well-paced and incisive in attack – not at all like Rostropovich’s memorably idiosyncratic performances as a conductor with the LSO but none the worse for that.