BBC Symphony Orchestra/Yamada [Takemitsu & Rachmaninov … Isabelle Faust plays Thomas Larcher’s Violin Concerto]

Requiem for string orchestra
Violin Concerto [UK premiere]
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27

Isabelle Faust (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Kazuki Yamada

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 March, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Kazuki Yamada. Photograph: Marco BorggreveKazuki Yamada (born 1979) here made his London debut in this broadcast-live concert. Yamada, the winner of the 2009 Besançon International Conducting Competition, has an expansive yet clear technique; he is watchful and seems helpful to an orchestra. He also exhibits a certain reserve. This served Takemitsu well, but not Rachmaninov.

Yamada’s Japanese calling-card was a pertinent introduction to the conductor’s scrupulous approach. His fellow-countryman Toru Takemitsu (1930-96) came to prominence with Requiem for string orchestra (1957) not least for it being hailed as a “masterpiece” by Stravinsky. It’s a restrained piece roughened by stabbing accents and crunchy chords, rarefied yet touching nerves. Yamada’s sympathetic conducting drew exacting playing, the smallest detail registering with meaning, and the sheen that the violinists found in the highest registers in the superannuated passages reminded of Webern’s Five Movements (Opus 5) in the composer’s string-orchestra revision of the string-quartet original.

Yet such Karajan-like gloss and a detached manner did no favours to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony. The slow introduction was static, without expectancy, and Yamada grouping all the violins together created a dominance of left-biased treble frequencies (this music simply cries out for the antiphonal fiddles that Rachmaninov knew as de rigueur). The exposition (thankfully not repeated on this occasion) was rather bullied along. Balances were awry, too – thus Stephen Bryant’s violin solo at the start of the development was swamped by gurgling noises from the horns, and these same instruments were encouraged to cover the strings’ wonderful harmonic progression that closes the slow movement. No surprise then that the brass brazened its way through the symphony’s ultimate coda to the detriment of everything else written into the score. In short, this vivid and bright, top-line and primary-colour, if uninvolving and unmoving performance lacked for essence and passion; it was all-too-obvious why this is a popular symphony but Yamada’s reserve and applied post-Hollywood-heyday presentation (the symphony was completed in 1907) suggested that he really should have been conducting something else. Seriously, he could have made a wonderfully lucid job of Sibelius’s great if ‘cold water’ Sixth Symphony. Make no mistake, the Rachmaninov was very well prepared and delivered, but this hour’s worth of sweeping melodies cut from similar-sounding cloth became bland and tried the patience, and was further compounded with quiet playing being at a premium as well as the performance missing those necessities of Rachmaninov’s music – darkness, depth, soul, emotional edge and volatility.

Isabelle Faust. Photograph: Felix BroedeYamada’s accomplishments – and he is clearly very talented, secure and confident – came into their own in sorting out the many and varied textures of Thomas Larcher’s Violin Concerto (2009), music that suggests this Austrian composer (born 1963) as a transplanted Russian, specifically allied to Arvo Pärt and Alfred Schnittke. Over 24 minutes the listener is discombobulated by staggers in style, and also that the two movements (both lasting twelve minutes) cover a similar trajectory. The whimsical opening, a gentle lullaby, is a formation of sounds, becoming too close to Pärt’s tintinnabulation. Then arrives terser writing, Bartók and Hindemith seem part of the mix, the music being of separate mechanisms coalescing if conflicting. The always-welcome accordion adds a plangent colour to an already vibrant orchestra, not overly large but varied, including harp, celesta and piano, as well as dark-timbre woodwinds and enough percussion for four players. As well as its obsessive and macabre slants, the score has its religioso aspects and its film-music traits (with a solo violin “Schindler’s List” came to mind, and there seemed a certain Wagnerian anvil motif). Finally the music is in fragments, succumbing to a Schnittke-like chill wind. Written for Isabelle Faust, she gave a fabulous performance, superbly complemented by the BBCSO and Yamada. Larcher’s Violin Concerto, which has an eco-system all its own, compels and entertains, but where it was going and whether it arrived is another matter.

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