The Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra’s Sunday matinee had several French connections. On the stage were two Frenchmen, conductor Sylvain Cambreling and soloist Pierre-Laurent Aimard; on the programme were two orchestral works by French composer Hector Berlioz, whose 150th anniversary of his death is being celebrated this year; and at the end of the concert, the whole orchestra let their hair down and played and danced to the French can-can music by Jacques Offenbach, in a fond farewell gesture to their outgoing Principal Conductor. After a month of farewell performances, this was Cambreling’s very last concert in his post.

Sylvain Cambreling
© Marco Borggreve

He has been at the helm of this orchestra for nine years and together they have established a reputation for excelling in large 20th-century works such as Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie and Saint François d'Assise, and more recently Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, but somehow I had missed the opportunity to hear them until this final concert. What struck me from the outset was the orchestral sound: many of Tokyo’s other orchestras have either a weightier sound, but I felt that the Yomikyo, especially its string section, has a lighter and more transparent, almost sensual sonority. Whether this is a “French” sound is debatable, but it’s certainly attractive. Perhaps this is one of the legacies of Cambreling’s tenure.

He chose to end with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. According to the programme booklet, he had conducted this work with the Yomikyo shortly before he was appointed, so he must have an affinity with the work. Yet being a Frenchman doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great Berlioz interpreter. On the contrary, history shows that there are more British conductors who have been keen advocates of the composer. Perhaps I am too used to Sir John Eliot Gardiner or Sir Roger Norrington’s edgy and theatrical interpretations, but somehow Cambreling’s approach to this radical and groundbreaking symphony felt a little tame and his reading seemed to smooth out Berlioz’s eccentricities.

It was certainly a brilliant performance in terms of orchestral colour and mood, with the players responding to Cambreling with extra alertness in this final performance with him. In the first movement he brought out the dreamy quality, whereas the waltz movement had a nightmarish and stormy feel. He excelled in depicting the mood of the countryside scene where there was a sensual quality to the orchestral sound. Thereafter though, it never quite reached the explosive climax in the March to the Scaffold – it was grand and pompous but wasn’t scary or gripping enough. The brass section played gloriously however, with a warm, appropriately French timbre. The last movement wasn’t quite wild enough for a witches’ sabbath. Cambreling’s conducting was precise but often too controlled and lacked theatricality. It felt like he wasn’t able to release his emotions.

Cambreling was more convincing in the other Berlioz work that opened the concert, the overture to Béatrice and Bénédict. A work in a lighter vein, the composer cleverly captures the whirlwind mood of Shakespeare’s play with characteristic snappy rhythms, which were crisp and articulate. Of the woodwinds, the clarinet played a prominent role and the strings displayed warmth and elegance. While highlighting various motivic details that make up this piece, he also managed to create a sense of flow.

The highlight of the afternoon, however, was Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s lively and vivid performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor. Fielding a slightly smaller string section than in the Berlioz, Cambreling set a sombre and dramatic mood in the introduction. The piano entry was dramatic and intense, Aimard meaningfully sculpting every phrase even in the more technical passages. The orchestra was alert and supported the pianist sensitively, although the woodwind principals could have responded a little more proactively and with similar intensity as the soloist in the dialogue passages. Aimard created a beautifully tranquil mood in the second movement, and the flute and bassoon dialogue over the piano arpeggios had chamber music intimacy. In the final Rondo, the piano again led the way, maintaining the momentum and intensity right to the end. In his hands, the concerto acquired urgency and strong contemporary resonance. Receiving a huge ovation, he performed two enigmatic miniatures from the sixth volume of Kurtág’s Játékok, leaving us to ponder.