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
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.
because of the Japanese component of the audience, Takemitsu’s work was
received in perfect silence, a welcome change.
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.
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.
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’.
‘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.
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.
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’.
BIS 30th Anniversary Edition, CD301078: