S&H Concert review


PROM 49: Takemitsu, Prokofiev & Shostakovich, Martha Argerich (pf), NHK Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (MB)

This concert, one of the first to sell out at this year’s Proms, proved a very mixed blessing. The NHK Symphony Orchestra, a precise band albeit one with over-emphatic brass and somewhat undernourished string tone (at least on the left of the orchestra), provided largely anodyne playing throughout the evening. They did little to illustrate the glories of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and even less to interact with their star soloist. Their accompaniment to Martha Argerich’s astonishing, and blistering, performance of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto left one feeling short-changed with playing that felt not only jaded but underwhelming. It was embellished with faded colouring and a hint of resignation.

We cannot, I suppose, expect all orchestras to have individual tone and colour – but this one is the greyest I have heard. Charles Dutoit, never the most exacting or exciting of conductors, seemed to be propelled along by this lethargy: his movements were conspicuously understated and whatever Argerich was saying to him during the pauses did little to change this. Where he seemed to dither she marched up and down the keyboard like an army. Victory seemed hers – and almost in spite of everything. It was fabulous playing – every bit as biting and nervous as we have come to expect from her in this concerto. The colour she generated from the keyboard was kaleidoscopic, with shards of octaves thrown down like gauntlets and a dynamic range that was as startling for its fortissimos as it was for the clandestine warmth of the quietest moments. If at times she seemed dreamily at peace it also made her fingers literally bleed.

The performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth could have done with a little blood letting too. It ended on a vastly inflated ritardando which seemed colossal in scale (it was) but which also seemed strangely inappropriate. It started no less imposingly – but where, I wondered, was the grittiness, the ominous trenchancy which make this symphony the masterpiece it is? Where balances in the Prokofiev had been kept largely in order in the Shostakovich they were rampantly out of control. Perhaps appropriately for a Japanese orchestra I was reminded of a tsunami – the brass, particularly, swimming out to sea uncontrollably. The Largo lilted a little too much but had considerable beauty of tone even if it seemed unusually tranquil and not at all born from suffering.

Takemitsu’s Ceremonial which opened the concert had a natural flow which suited this orchestra’s rather understated playing. Blocks of sound were carefully built up, the three sets of off-stage woodwind (perhaps not placed as high as the score demands) seemingly heavenly. Starting and ending with a soloist on the Shõ (a bamboo mouth organ) the work charmed in a celestial way. It seemed the only naturally played work the entire evening.

Marc Bridle

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