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S & H Concert Review

Takemitsu, Mozart, Mahler John Lill (piano); Rebecca Evans (soprano); Sapporo Symphony Orchestra/Tadaaki Otaka. Barbican Hall, Tuesday October 30th, 2001.

The Sapporo Symphony Orchestra’s tour of seven major UK cities is part of the astonishingly varied celebrations of ‘Japan 2001’. Tadaaki Otaka is no stranger to these shores because of his involvement with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. He took up the post of Music Advisor and Principal Conductor of the Sapporo orchestra in May 1998. There was much evidence of close rapport between conductor and orchestra at this concert.

The inclusion of a work by Toru Takemitsu was perhaps predictable, but nevertheless fascinating. Star-Isle (1992) was written for Waseda University in Tokyo, and Takemitsu takes the musical notes from ‘Waseda’ (A flat (As), E, D and A) as a prime source for his material. Otaka consistently brought out the influence of Messiaen, immediately apparent in the opening brass ensemble. This is not one of Takemitsu’s more self-indulgent works (there are several outbursts) and it is all the stronger for that.

Takemitsu stated that Star-Isle can also be played as an introduction to Far Calles. Coming, far! for violin and orchestra, and it has to be admitted that when it finished, there was a definite implication that more was to come: one was left with a curiously unsatisfied feeling.

Perhaps some more Takemitsu would not have been a bad thing. It has been a long time since I last heard John Lill (back in the days when he was a regular soloist with the Hallé Orchestra). His playing was always characterised by a steady technique, but there was a marked tendency towards four-square phrasing, unsubtle shading and a general sameness of tone. Nothing, it appears, has changed. Despite the efforts of the Sapporo players to contend with an over-slow pace for the first movement of Mozart's D minor Piano Concerto (No. 20, K466), many moments of Mozartian magic were simply glossed over. It left one wondering just how much rehearsal time there had been (wind balance was curiously careless, for example). The opening of the slow movement just proved how elusive the ‘art of the simple’ can be, Lill’s interventionist manner robbing the moment of its potential for tranquility. The last movement found the woodwind in more sprightly form, but Lill’s tendency to over-pedal (a fault which ran throughout this performance) precluded enjoyment of this most masterly of concertos.

It is a safe bet that the lion’s share of rehearsal time went into Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. It was obvious that Otaka had studied Mahler's orchestration carefully, many details emerging effortlessly and clearly. To his credit, Otaka took a long view of the first movement, so that all details fitted into a coherent whole. The second movement occasionally felt rushed, although I have nothing but praise for leader Mayumi Kano’s solos on her re-tuned violin.

The strings, unfortunately, did not have the requisite depth of sound to make the third movement the powerful experience it can be: the cellos, in particular, felt the strain in some of Mahler's cruelly exposed writing. The climax, however, was well managed and led effortlessly into the final (vocal) movement. Rebecca Evans, the soprano soloist, took time to warm up in Mahler's very special finale, so that moments of magic only began to be hinted at about half way through. Some lines lay too low for her and she had a tendency to bulge on longer notes, but neither of these points was the main problem. Her voice sounded too big for this piece and there was little sense of heavenly wonder. It was not the ideal way to end a concert which contained much to provoke thought.

Colin Clarke

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