Sapporo Symphony Orchestra/Otaka at Royal Festival Hall [Takemitsu … Shostakovich … Akiko Suwanai plays Bruch]

How Slow the Wind
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.26
Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47

Akiko Suwanai (violin)

Sapporo Symphony Orchestra
Tadaaki Otaka

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 23 May, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Akiko Suwanai. Photograph ©Universal Music / Martin RichardsonThis visit to London by the Sapporo Symphony had been planned as part of an international 50th-anniversary tour; events in Japan in March understandably shifted the emphasis from celebration to solidarity and the event became a fund-raising concert for the earthquake effort. Rather than allow the tragedy to hang too heavily over proceedings, Tadaaki Otaka gave the evening as planned and saved his moment of reflection for the end. Otaka recalled the day the quake struck before leading the orchestra in a hugely moving performance of ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which said more than words could.

Tadaaki OtakaAs it happened, the northern city of Sapporo was largely unaffected by the quake and subsequent tsunami. Sapporo, a city of two-million people, is the capital of the Japanese island of Hokkaido and is, on the evidence of this concert, the possessor of a fine orchestra. Akiko Suwanai, the youngest-ever winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition, joined it for Max Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Suwanai now performs with the Dolphin Stradivari of 1714, once owned and played by Heifetz. By all accounts, Heifetz’s tone was comparatively small; Suwanai’s is at the other end of the spectrum, seeming to dwarf the collective contribution of the members of the orchestra. She was secure throughout, but her aggressively clipped articulation proved wearing and even in the Adagio she never relaxed. Her sound remained powerful as though she couldn’t reduce it to match her accompanists’ quietest moments.

Toru Takemitsu’s How Slow the Wind (1991) found the Sapporo orchestra revelling in textures less familiar to the western canon. With a reduced orchestra (many fewer violas and cellos than violins, and no brass except horns), Takemitsu’s sound-painting gave the impression of a shimmering and sometimes-disturbed surface hiding an occasionally glimpsed depth and solidity. The lack of bass-register instruments reinforced this notion and a distinctly Japanese quality in the flute-playing brought an unconventional sound to Takemitsu’s misty orchestration.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was an intriguing proposition given the concert’s circumstances and the historical baggage that any orchestra and conductor must negotiate in this score. The temptation might be to overplay the tragic elements and skirt around the ambiguity of the faux-celebratory conclusion. Otaka judged it well and presented a refreshingly straightforward performance. He avoided overdoing moments of swaggering irony, taking much of the music at face-value and eschewing some of the knowing gestures that can infect this work. Tellingly, in the finale’s conclusion, Otaka adopted the same jagged and angular address that he had in the symphony’s opening, his swift tempo seeming an appeal for the audience to find its own answers to the work’s ambiguities. It was an impressive display, also, from the Sapporo musicians; although not uniformly flawless, many moments impressed for their subtle control of expression, particularly the pained pianissimo at the end of the Largo, which was just one highlight of a convincing and affecting account.

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