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S & H Concert Review

Takemitsu, Mahler Norbert Blume (viola); BBC Symphony Orchestra/Kazushi Ono. Barbican Hall, May 6th, 2003 (CC)


Takemitsu and Mahler actually cohabit on a concert programme remarkably well. Both composers’ music is highly personal; both are extremely sensitive to nature (although with very different results). Instrumental timbre occupied both composers. The contrast comes with the lineage. Takemitsu displays the influence of French music (Debussy, Messiaen), whereas Mahler resides on the Austro-Germanic side of the coin. Takemitsu is concerned with lush, beautiful sonorities invoking a meditational calm, whereas Mahler is just as content evoking more earthy peasant bands and herds of cows as he is with the more idyllic side of the Austrian landscape. With this fascinating juxtaposition as a starting point, this concert promised much.

And so it was to be. Takemitsu’s A String Around Autumn (1989) is a viola concerto under another name, complete (surprisingly, perhaps) with a full cadenza. Calum MacDonald’s programme note stated that this cadenza is, ‘no more than a gesture – if that - in the direction of a conventional cadenza’. The effect seemed, to this writer at least, somewhat different, a structural reaffirmation of the viola’s role of commentator, a stark way of separating him from his orchestral landscape. A String Around Autumn was written in the year of the bicentennial of the French Revolution, and is dedicated to the people of France. The viola emerges seamlessly from the highly Impressionist, vibraphone-tinged texture (the composer has stated that the viola, ‘plays the part of the human being observing nature in this autumnal scene’). This performance underlined one of the miracles of Takemitsu: gestures frequently appear quasi-improvisational, yet everything is always tightly aurally controlled. Some remarkably yearning Romantic turns of phrase are embedded in this generally lush soundscape, washes of sound caressing the ear towards the end.

Norbert Blume was supremely confident and at home in this piece, entering fully into Takemitsu’s mindset. Although no information was given in the biography as to conductor Kazushi Ono’s teachers, it would come as no surprise if he were to have a similar history to his compatriot, Tadaaki Otaka. As with Otaka, in a recent RFH concert, Ono’s gestures were textbook in precision, yet remarkably flexible in expression. A pity he chose not to hold the silence at the close of A String Around Autumn. Instead, he turned to the audience and smiled sweetly as if to say, ‘Thank you very much for your applause, we’ve finished’ …

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony (1904/5) is possibly this composer’s most forbidding symphonic statement. It has the reputation of being difficult, structurally dubious and even of being vacuous in the finale. Yet, as Andrew Huth pointed out in his programme note, Schoenberg no less was a great admirer of this piece. There is no doubt it presents an enormous challenge, both on interpretative and technical levels: no wonder this symphony and the concert platform have strangers grown.

One can only assume, given the calibre of this performance, that much rehearsal time was kindly provided by the BBC. Much of the salient features of this performance were embedded in the symphony’s opening bars. The literal tread of the strings held little sense of mystery or foreboding. Despite good tenor horn playing, more of a sense of the bizarre was called for. The Allegro con fuoco march was better, horns demonstrating a phenomenal unanimity of attack and pitch – all it needed was that bit more ‘fuoco’, but on the plus side the movement did gain in intensity as it went on.

In a similar fashion, Nachtmusik I began with evocative horn call-and-response, but then lacked a certain ‘schwung’. The woodwind soloists were a delight to listen to, and, importantly, Ono did not play down the importance of the intrinsic vulgarities that are such an essential part of the scope of this music. Nature sounds made their impact, not least the remote cow-bells (somewhere upstairs?). The parodistic Scherzo showed off the BBCSO at its best. Woodwind shrieks were visceral in impact and the fleet-footed, shadowy violins were commendably together. Violist Caroline Harrison deserves a mention for her lovely solo contribution. The delicate webs of texture, with their ever-shifting colours, in the second Nachtmusik contrasted superbly with the problematic finale. Sudden shifts of mood were (correctly) unsettling, and the whole was driven by a grim, white-knuckled determination that threw into relief Mahler’s sometimes outrageous gestures. This is music of extremes and Kazushi Ono ensured it sounded so. Grotesqueries and vulgarities abounded (very un-Japanese!) leaving a curiously powerful, but somewhat disturbingly empty, feel.

Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is a remarkable piece that deserves a remarkable performance. All credit to the BBCSO and Kazushi Ono for providing just that.

Colin Clarke




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