The WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln put its fate in the hands of the younger generation for this evening’s concert. Conductor Kazuki Yamada is only 34. The original violin soloist was to have been Lisa Batiashvili, but she pulled out and was replaced by the 22-year-old Serge Zimmermann. And even organist Christian Schmitt, who played the solo part in the Organ Symphony, is only 36, sprightly indeed for a concert soloist on that instrument. All three brought new perspectives to these works, but a lack of experience was also evident in many places, where technical proficiency was no substitute for sophistication. Fortunately, the orchestra itself performed to its usual high standard, bringing distinction and character to every phrase, even if occasionally they had to compensate for a lack of dynamism from the front of the stage.

Kazuki Yamada © Marco Borggreve
Kazuki Yamada
© Marco Borggreve

Kazuki Yamada has plenty going for him. His baton technique is impeccable, and his ability to keep on top of every detail of the score would put many of his more senior colleagues to shame. He communicates well with the orchestra, and it was clear that he had a real vision for how each of these works should sound. He has a tendency to be quite rigid though, and that often came through in the playing too. Given his obvious mastery of his trade, he could afford to relax a bit, to ease off the tempos occasionally, and to give his soloists a little more space to breathe. On the other hand, his interpretive approach is all about drive and focus, qualities that he projects well and that the orchestra intuitively responds to. Le Tombeau de Couperin was presented in a fast and lively reading. There was precious little rubato here, yet the music was well-shaped throughout. A constructive tension emerged between Yamada and the woodwind soloists, he rarely giving them much space to shape their phrases, but they always able to do so, and very elegantly too, nonetheless. Yamada opted for a surprisingly large string section (a 6-5-4-3-2 formation), but given the sheer precision of the string playing from this orchestra, and the ability of all to finely judge balances, the music never suffered. In fact, the large and lush string sound had the effect of locating the music squarely in the Impressionist era and shunting out any possible Baroque echoes, despite the rigid tempos. And Ravel’s focus on orchestral colour was rewarded by the clarity of the Philharmonie acoustic. All the details of his orchestration shone through with sparkling clarity, especially the harp, whose every note carried with ease across the large orchestra.

Serge Zimmerman is a local lad, born in Cologne in 1991 and now rapidly rising through the ranks of aspiring violin virtuosos. Standing in at short notice to play Prokofiev’s Second Concerto is no mean feat (we weren’t told exactly how much notice, but enough to get his name and bio in the programme), and he gave a proficient and technically secure performance. Prokofiev demands much, and, for the most part, Zimmermann delivers. He’s got the gritty tone needed for much of the first movement, and he can do the Spanish folk fiddle in the finale. He also has an impressive ability to dominate the proceedings simply through the soloistic style of his playing, with no volume increase required. The one thing he lacks is the sweet, cantabile tone that the second movement needs in order properly to sing. Still, it was an impressive performance, especially given the soloist’s age. Yamada had his work cut out with this score, and it was the only piece on the programme where he was seen to struggle. In the last few minutes of the finale, everything seems to be going on at once, with complex orchestral textures underlying an erratic solo part, and all framed in a challenging system of meter changes and tempo shifts. Yamada, Zimmermann and the orchestra all made it to the end together, despite a few moments along the way when the outcome still seemed far from certain.

No such concerns with the Organ Symphony though, a work Yamada was confident enough with to conduct without a score. As in the Ravel, he presented an interpretation that was laudably coherent, if a little more foursquare than we are used to hearing. The orchestra was on top form throughout the symphony, and the work gave the players every chance to shine. The scurrying repeated-note figures in the first movement allowed the strings to project a burnished, focused tone, even at the quietest dynamics. The woodwind solos all had plenty of character, and the players know the acoustic here well enough to know that they can employ their full dynamic range and will always be heard. The brass had real weight in the finale, exceptional precision of ensemble, and rounded, controlled timbres, even at the loudest dynamics. And what better work to show off the fine Klais organ of the Philharmonie? Organist Christian Schmitt chose his registers wisely to give the organ sound breadth and depth but without completely overpowering the orchestra. He struggled in a few places, the opening of the Adagio for example, to enter from nothing or to return to silence; the acoustic here means that you’re either playing or you’re not, there’s no chance of blurring the boundary. But everything came together in the finale. Yamada still drove the music incessantly, the orchestra still countering his fervour with their elegant and controlled playing, and Schmitt balancing the organ part against the orchestra while still giving it the sense of sheer weight that it requires in these closing pages. An impressive conclusion indeed, and all the more so for the crystal clarity of the Phiharmonie acoustic, an environment about as distant as could be imagined from the aural gloom of the huge cathedrals in which this music is more often heard.

***11