Two four-movement late Romantic piano concertos lasting nearly an hour each are a huge ask for any pianist to even contemplate playing in a single concert, but that’s the challenge Hisako Kawamura took on at Suntory Hall last night, with a repertoire standard concerto, Brahms’ Second, following Amy Beach’s rarely performed Piano Concerto in C sharp minor. Kawamura excelled in both, but Kazuki Yamada and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra were far more at home in the Brahms than the Beach.

Kazuki Yamada, Hisako Kawamura
© Koji Iida | Suntory Hall

Kawamura has a no-nonsense stage presence. There’s physicality in her playing – her back will arch with a flourish after a rippling run – but it’s internally focussed, not histrionic. Every phrase, whether gentle or thunderous, lyrical or passionate, was played with shape, purpose and a sense of forward movement, and she maintained a rock solid pulse and perfect legato even when the composer has made that very difficult (Brahms sets some nasty challenges, with the right hand making wild forays into the highest octaves).

The orchestra revelled in the Brahms. Suntory Hall’s generous acoustic helps any orchestra to provide warmth and richness, but even so, you couldn’t help but wallow in the lushness of the orchestral sound. The opening interplay between horn and piano set the scene for a movement in which the strings swelled and ebbed as a single body and every woodwind player added richly coloured and beautifully turned phrases. The brass thrilled when they played together en masse and the balance between soloist and orchestra never fell out of kilter. The second movement Allegro appassionato never fell short of the demanded passion, Kawamura driving forward even when the piano part was gentle and becomes truly rhapsodic at the end. The lovely slow movement was marked by individually telling moments – a neat handover of the theme to the bassoons, a lyrical piano solo that meanders and then gels, a whisper-quiet fade to pianissimo from the violins. If the fourth movement could have done with a little more verve, it ended with plenty of lilt. Yamada’s gestures were always clear, his demeanour filled with enthusiasm.

Kazuki Yamada
© Koji Iida | Suntory Hall

Composed some 20 years after the Brahms, Amy Beach’s concerto is written on a similar scale. It’s hardly performed today, but Kawamura discovered it during lockdown, an Aladdin’s cave of rich melodies and entertaining writing both for orchestra and soloist (Beach was a fine pianist herself). However, the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra failed to mark out Beach’s New World distinctiveness. 

In Beach’s concerto, Kawamura threw herself into the piano part and made an excellent case for it. There’s plenty to like about this work: robust solo lines; piano-horn interplay; a Perpetuum mobile in which the piano drifts in and out of the orchestral texture; a sweet slow movement; and a light-hearted finale. But the overall orchestral playing was strangely low octane, overly refined, needing sharper accents.

Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra
© Koji Iida | Suntory Hall

The programme had opened with a five minute amuse-bouche in the shape of her waltz Bal Masqué. At its best, it’s a confluence of Strauss and Sousa, Viennese Schwung inflected with American pizazz, but the performance was too elegant; these dancers were too proper, lacking joyful abandon.

Orchestrally, therefore, a concert of two halves, but Kawamura showed real star quality in both concertos, as well as the impressive stamina to be able to play both in the same concert, plus the generosity to offer a lyrical encore, Clara Schumann’s transcription of Robert’s Widmung.