Saito Kinen Orchestra

Requiem for Strings
Music for strings, percussion and celesta
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)

Saito Kinen Orchestra
Seiji Ozawa

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 May, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Seiji Ozawa shunned the conventional solo entry and arrived on the platform with his string players. He stood aside the podium, head bowed, as they tuned. The Saito Kinen Orchestra, formed by Ozawa and Kazuyoshi Akiyama to commemorate Hideo Saito (he was a mentor of Ozawa’s and co-founder of one of Japan’s leading music schools) is now in its twentieth year, and this London appearance formed part of a one-programme, six-concert European tour (including Berlin, Vienna and Paris).

The orchestra, by design, is mostly but not exclusively of Japanese musicians. Of non-nationals, Everett Firth remains the timpanist, a true veteran – he was a long-serving member of the Boston Symphony (right back to Munch’s day) – and among the woodwinds was clarinettist Karl Leister, from Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic.

There’s no doubting the utmost commitment and ardour with which these musicians play for Ozawa. Takemitsu’s Requiem (1957) found the strings exactingly responsive to every subtlety and colour that this piece requires, the players’ emotional response making the dissonant ‘crunches’ an intrinsic part of the fabric. This rather Bergian piece, often beautiful, sometimes nakedly direct (despite its compositional complexities), was given with deep dedication, Ozawa conducting from memory, as ever, with his trademark score-less music-stand in position.

This was a thoughtfully designed combination of works – Takemitsu’s response to a close friend’s death mirrored at the end by Tchaikovsky’s own valediction, with Takemitsu’s strings being hierarchically added-to for the Bartók. The one thing, quite important, that the Bartók lacked, was earthiness. Otherwise this was a pinpoint, lively, intense, incident-packed and scrupulously balanced account that was often exquisitely sounded, especially so in the ethereal third movement in which celesta, harp and piano were blended to perfection. The work had opened from the depths, and the finale was given was vitality and sonorous reminiscence.

Ozawa is, maybe, an idealist rather than a realist conductor. While the opening of the Pathétique, with a heavy-hearted bassoon solo and lugubrious lower strings, caught the mood exactly, there were also times when his pristine approach robbed the music of inner despair, although one could only admire Ozawa’s structural sense in the first movement, which seamlessly flowed. Before the ‘thunderclap’ development, Karl Leister had provided a generous solo, Tchaikovsky’s ultra-quiet dynamics passed to a bass clarinet rather than the scored bassoon for the last notes. Maybe the succeeding Waltz was a tad manicured, although the woodwinds made a wonderfully coloured consort. The March, though, was too fast, and rather empty with brass and cymbals vulgarly projected; Bernstein, Celibidache and Mikko Franck have looked beyond the showpiece element of this music to the considerable advantage of its threat and determination. Vacuous applause (normal for this movement) was an intrusion made worse given Ozawa quite obviously wanted to plunge straight into the tortured, ultimately resigned finale, here volatile, searing and spiralling to extinction.

The unused harp meant an encore, more Tchaikovsky, the Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker, here affectionate, time-taken and teasing. Afterwards, everything now cheery, Seiji Ozawa literally ran off the platform with a spring in his step. He’s always worth catching.

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