Prom 49: 27th August 2001

Ceremonial – An Autumn Ode
Piano Concerto No.3
Symphony No.5

Mayumi Miyata (sho)
Martha Argerich (piano)
NHK Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 27 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Less than a week after an Oriental soloist and a Russian orchestra played Russian music at the Proms (No.43), it was now the turn of an Oriental orchestra with a soloist and conductor steeped in the repertoire to offer an illuminating contrast.

No praise is too high for Martha Argerich; to hear her play live is always a privilege. On this evidence, her attack and verve are undiminished. With her, as with the very great, virtuosity is always in the service of interpretation. From her very first entry, she stamped her authority. The opening figurations were effortlessly fleet; the first chordal passage established her command.

One could not imagine a closer collaborator for Argerich than Dutoit. In the first two movements, the rhythmic affinity between soloist and orchestra was such that they seemed like different elements of the same instrument.Dutoit accompanied with a sensitivity to scale that often gave the work a chamber-like texture; the percussion seemed to spring-out organically from the piano part.

Argerich was completely at home with the concerto’s wide emotional and technical demands, lyrical and dramatic by turns, the cadenza-like return to the first movement’s recapitulation particularly impressive. The second movement was masterly, perfectly to scale, launched on pointed orchestral rhythm, softened by the piano entry. The transition between the last, technically dazzling variation and the serenity of the coda was exemplary.Only in the agitation of the finale was the rapport between soloist and orchestra less than ideal. Nevertheless, Argerich’s playing, steel-fingered in staccato passages, brought the concerto to a sparkling and ecstatically received conclusion.

The Shostakovich symphony, Dutoit lacking Argerich’s fire and inspiration, was cool to the point of cynicism.Whether or not one chooses to read the whole work, and especially its finale, as being ironic, there is no doubt this interpretation fell between the two stools of intensity and harshness. It was precise rather than passionate, exact rather than expressive, more disciplined than dramatic.

There is a case for the symphony’s opening to be unemotional – to interpret it as a psychological journey – but Dutoit’s interpretation was over-analytical throughout; however carefully climaxes were built, or structures delineated, the last degree of engagement was always lacking. The second movement, here well drilled and energetic, is described as a Mahlerian Landler; here it was the Mahler of Boulez, not Bernstein. The slow movement had fine moments of hushed playing, but remained too detached to be the symphony’s emotional core. This ambiguity between heat and cold was at its strongest in the finale – full of beautifully shaped sound and fury; whether this signified triumph or irony was difficult to judge. A valid reading of music poised so delicately between artistic and political considerations.

The orchestral playing was impeccable throughout – solos from the leader, Masafumi Hori, and the flutes of Hiroaki Kanda and Tomio Nakano, and in many flawless unison passages; at times the music’s idiom seemed not to come naturally.

In Ceremonial, the orchestra presented an attractive and accessible fusion of traditional Japanese and modern European. The sho, its existence unsuspected by those who have not studied Japanese court music, is a bamboo wind-organ. Its ethereal, spiritual and aesthetically refined characteristics act as a musical frame. The player must adopt a posture of apparent religious devotion in order to play the instrument. Mayumi Miyata certainly made a persuasive case for the instrument in terms of beauty of tone and expressiveness. Ceremonial can be described as an orchestral elaboration of the sho’s solo material, Takemitsu typically evoking the sounds of nature; the orchestral playing was precise and delicate, with especially fine harp and percussion contributions.

Charles Dutoit has an excellent reputation in orchestral showpieces; Glinka’s overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla made a fitting and splendid encore (not broadcast by BBC2 and Radio 3! – Music Editor). The NHK Symphony played with the lightness of Rossini and a genuinely Russian passion.

In the Fifth’s finale, Shostakovich quotes from his own song (from Op.46), a passage setting these (Pushkin’s) words: “And the doubts pass away from my troubled soul / As a fresh, bright day brings visions of pure gold”. As a description of emotional progression, it highlights not just the symphony’s aspirations, but the concert itself – from the light-drawn, tentative Takemitsu, through the agitation of the concerto and the hard-fought resolution of the symphony, to the untroubled exuberance of Glinka.Whatever my reservations, it was to the NHK and Dutoit’s credit that their emotional range encompassed so broad a spectrum.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast (with encore?) Monday, 3 September, at 2 o’clock

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