Saito Kinen, Orchestra / Ozawa, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Most audiences' list of the scariest and most sorrowful repertoire pieces would contain Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony and Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta.

Most audiences' list of the scariest and most sorrowful repertoire pieces would contain Tchaikovsky's Pathétique symphony and Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Put them together, and you get a gloomy calling card for the Saito Kinen Orchestra, a touring orchestra made up of past students of the respected Japanese teacher Hideo Saito. There was also the Requiem for strings by Toru Takemitsu, which misses the shortlist only on the scare factor.

Gloomy, but timely. Such a programme helps us to focus on and comprehend the emotions released by things being done around the world in our name, just as the music of Shostakovich helped Soviet audiences. All abstract traditions, in whatever culture, contain music with a potential for shared unburdening.

Takemitsu's music set the tone. Requiem is an early work, led by melody phrased as though in breaths controlled by a changing heartbeat, and using chords as colour more than harmony. The strings handled the constantly shifting density of sound with finesse and quick-spirited flexibility. The double-basses were divided into two groups of four on opposite sides. That meant they didn't have to move when the rest of the strings rearranged into a double orchestra for the Bartok - though, as the programme noted, Bartok envisaged the basses adjoining at the back.

No wonder: when they begin they all play the same line, and here the split effect was like a fake stereo recording. But Seiji Ozawa's layout made increasing sense through the high-speed complexities later on. This performance was so confident in its ability to deliver the detail that it disdained the usual heavy emphases and forced tone. Instead, the music's nightmares and disintegrations crept up as though by stealth, leaving the last two minutes as a gripping adventure of the soul, passing through panic to desperate prayer and an uneasy end.

For the Tchaikovsky, the full orchestra displayed the same qualities of precision and intensity. Again the great drama was left for the last 15 minutes. The middle of the first movement erupted with unexpected pace and power, but drove ahead without relenting, while the big tune unfolded with dignity. Everything changed, again gradually, when the playful scherzo metamorphosed into a horrific military adventure.

Though he was prevented by applause, Ozawa apparently wanted to run straight into the concluding adagio. You could hear why: the second, drooping melody slowly grew into a freedom of onward movement and a peak of volume so far not reached. After the opening's return, it went even further. This symphony's pay-off is always devastating, but the later the performers leave it to show their full hand, the more extreme it becomes.

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