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S & H Concert Review

Takemitsu, Bartók, Tchaikovsky Saito Kinen Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa, RFH, May 28th, 2004 (CC)


Part of the Saito Kinen’s six-city European tour (which ends in Milan on Sunday), this concert represented a rare opportunity to become re-acquainted with Seiji Ozawa, too infrequent a visitor to these shores. The programming brought no real surprises - token Takemitsu (there are other Japanese composers, you know), Bartók’s eminently palatable Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique.

Takemitsu’s Requiem for Strings of 1957 is one of his earliest major works. What can only be described as a lush, Romantic opening leads to a mix of territory familiar from this composer’s oeuvre mixed with more dynamic sections that (aptly) seemed to refer to the world of Bartók. Placing the violas on the conductor’s right side meant that their warmth came through well. And the solo viola passages projected perfectly (and were superbly played). The strings of the Saito Kinen orchestra do have depth lower down. It was only a certain shrillness in the violin’s upper registers that detracted. The Requiem lasts a mere eight minutes, yet it made its mark well.

Perhaps because of the Japanese component of the audience, Takemitsu’s work was received in perfect silence, a welcome change.

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta continued a string-dominated first half (the percussion flecks and colourings were welcome). It is a tribute to the discipline of the violins that the hushed subject of the first movement was at once so together, in tune and haunting (the atmosphere aided by Ozawa’s economical conducting). Ozawa carefully kept the dynamic constant, so the build-up was based on textural means; leading to a climax whose passion belied cliché’s about the Japanese reserved nature.

The bite of the ensuing movement worked well - just a pity that the timpanist did not use harder sticks (the attack came across as too muffled). Yet it was the organic growth of the Adagio that most impressed, marred only by a penetrating and harsh solo violin (its tone only emphasised by the sweet celesta that doubled it). The finale brought with it the implication of bucolic joy (without actually portraying it; this was no stomp in the Hungarian countryside). A fine lyric impulse almost rescued it.

The Pathétique poses a massive challenge to any orchestra. Ozawa’s interpretation of the slow introduction was to introduce some light, an impression confirmed by a distinctly discernible balletic slant to the first movement proper. There were some impressive moments, but the brass could have had more weight in their fortissimo statements of the Fate theme (the descending scale that permeates the work). The solo flautist raised an eyebrow, as he was certainly the loudest flautist this reviewer has ever heard, and thought nothing of taking on the horn section (which was generally under-powered throughout the performance anyway) and effectively drowning them. The movement was structurally faulty, though, with the climax towards the end emerging more as a ‘ mezzo-climax’.

Japanese ‘çon grazia’ characterised the second movement, with politeness being equated with grace. Imploring gestures from Ozawa helped later on, as did some bold, dramatic strokes in the third movement, yet the latter movement did not contain much build-up of momentum.

A pity, because the contrast to the finale’s outpouring was ruined. But it was ruined anyway, by the enthusiastic but mis-placed applause after the third movement (Ozawa waited patiently for it to end). The finale itself revealed once more the under-powered strings and weak horns (the low hand-stopping - a distant effect of struggle Tchaikovsky must have intended - was barely audible). The tempo started at faster than Adagio (around quaver = 100), and then got faster and faster.

Any performance that succeeds in projecting the Tchaikovskian angst of the Pathétique necessarily precludes the possibility of any encore whatsoever. Ozawa and the Saito Kinen gave us the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’.

Colin Clarke

Further Listening

Tchaikovsky: Furtwangler/Naxos 8.110865
Takemitsu: BIS 30th Anniversary Edition, CD301078:


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