As reported in my previous review of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in November 2016, this is the only orchestra in the world affiliated primarily with a newspaper. It was founded in 1962 by Japan’s three leading media companies: the Yomiuri Shimbun (a newspaper), Nippon Television Network Corp, and Yomiuri Telecasting Corp. The Yomiuri newspaper group has the largest daily circulation in the world. The orchestra has enjoyed a steady succession of prestigious conductors – including Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Yuri Temirkanov, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski), and Sylvain Cambreling – who have built it into a world class ensemble.

Cornelius Meister
© Marco Borggreve

German conductor Sebastian Weigle begins his six-year contract as music director this season (new seasons begin in April in Japan), but the concert I attended in the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre was led by another German, the orchestra’s principal guest conductor Cornelius Meister. And a true Meister he was. Never have I heard a finer performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (almost inevitably in Ravel's orchestration), a claim not lightly made. Meister turned this warhorse into a continuously fascinating play of variegated colors, vivid dynamic contrasts and perfectly balanced sonic experiences. The depth and richness of sound from the brass choir following the solo trumpet’s introductory statement immediately impressed. Thereafter came a steady succession of details that continuously held the attention. Gnomus was played with almost uncanny clarity – rather than the ill-defined “whoosh” one usually hears at the beginning (and numerous time thereafter) where we heard six clearly articulated notes played at breakneck speed – obviously rehearsed with great care. The saxophone’s last note in the Old Castle faded ever so slowly into inaudibility – a magical touch. The first two chords of Catacombs were as different as night and day. Baba Yaga was a study in terrorism. The Great Gate at Kiev began just mezzo forte, so when the final pages arrived, the glorious sound of the full orchestra was absolutely sensational. One might have taken exception to Meister’s view of Bydło, which purred like a Mercedes-Benz rather than lumbered like the rickety old ox-cart Mussorgsky envisioned, but one could scarcely quibble over the superbly played tuba solos. Brass never blared, the percussion department never over-extended itself, never once was there a raw or coarse sound. Meister proved himself a true master of breathtaking pianississimos and of expressiveness without fussiness. Western concertgoers who still regard Japanese orchestras as technically highly accomplished but expressively somewhat deficient need to revise this outdated mode of thinking. Orchestral playing just doesn't get any better than what the YNSO produced for Pictures.

There was more magic before intermission. Twenty-three-year-old Japanese cellist Michiaki Ueno gave an astounding performance of Gaspar Cassadó’s Cello Concerto in D minor, a beautifully written, romantic, exquisitely scored and welcome alternative to the overplayed works by Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Elgar and Haydn. Cassadó (1897-1966) represents a slightly later generation of Spanish composers from the better-known figures like de Falla, Granados, Turina and Albéniz. Cellists know him as second only to Pablo Casals as the greatest cellist to come out of Spain. Cassadó also held the distinction of being probably Casals’ youngest student (he began studying with the master at twelve).

Ueno was born in Paraguay, spent his boyhood in Barcelona (hence probably leading to his choice of Cassadó) and has been living in Japan since 2004. According to his biography, he is still a student – at the Toho Gakuen School in Tokyo and private study with Pieter Wispelwey in Düsseldorf – but there would seem to be little more he needs to learn. He is already a supremely confident, mature artist for whom technical mastery is in the service of musicianship. His tone is gorgeous, amber-hued, almost as big as Rostropovich’s, and his intonation is perfect throughout the entire range. Ueno is one of those rare musicians one would go to hear anywhere, no matter what he plays. His substantial encore was entirely appropriate – a movement from Cassadó’s Suite for Solo Cello.

The concert opened with a curiously overwrought, leaden performance of Prokofiev’s rococo-inspired “Classical” Symphony, music that normally delights with its air of elegance and finesse, but under Meister’s leadership sounded overly romanticized and under rehearsed. Fortunately it proved a false harbinger of all that followed.