Reviews: Music; Playing to a hero's welcome

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Yomiuri Nippon SO/Otaka

Barbican Hall, London

Doubting Thomases who question the media's contribution to classical music should cast their eyes Eastwards to the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, a quality band that was parented 35 years ago by a newspaper and two TV corporations with the aim of spreading the gospel of great music throughout Japan. Monday's Barbican concert, though, proved that nowadays the YNSO can level with the best.

Tadaaki Otaka conducted and the first item, Toru Takemitsu's Twill by Twilight - an ethereal tribute to the late Morton Feldman - focused our attention with Zen-like resolve. The opening sequence was especially seductive: two harps, a sheet of string tone, a lone horn-call, a spiralling clarinet, Messiaenic brass and wave upon wave of luscious sonority, sometimes with a whiff of Ravel, but more often like Hokusai, fastidiously etched and crystal-clear. The orchestra responded securely on cue, with notably deft instrumental reportage, though I would have welcomed a more whole- hearted acknowledgement of the music's sensual core.

Otaka opened Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto formally and neatly, with incisive strings, perky woodwinds and well chosen tempos. John Lill gave an assertive, if somewhat generalised, account of the solo part, with a strong first-movement cadenza (Beethoven's own) and rapt handling of the mini-cadenza that signals the close of the slow movement. The finale witnessed occasional left-hand overemphases, but otherwise all went well.

My two criticisms of the orchestra - that their string tone is prone to brittleness and that some instrumental lines lack expressive inflection - applied more to the Beethoven than to Strauss's Ein Heldenleben, where lunging lower strings painted "the hero" in prime colours and the principal's long violin solo (an ornate depiction of Strauss's wife) was so vivid, so capricious and so technically assured that, had it been on a CD, I would have hit the "repeat" button for an instant replay (it's the point in the score where I quite often fall asleep). Three trumpeters walked off-stage to announce advancing troops, then walked back again to join the battle; there was some sterling work from the horns in "The Hero's Works of Peace" and a serenely beautiful "Retreat from the World and Fulfilment" where the YNSO's bright, even string tone came into its own.

Keen audience response made an encore inevitable, but how many in the hall knew what it was? I certainly didn't. Wild percussion, lusty shouts from the orchestra, a plaintive flute solo, then a riot of a high-speed finale - all couched in a distinctly Japanese idiom. It sent cheers of approval echoing through the rafters. An informed concert agent put me straight: it was Yuzo Toyama's Rhapsody for Orchestra, a sort of "Liszt with sake" - and a perfect way to close.