The Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra (YNSO) presented its Subscription Concert No. 564 (they count these things in Japan!) at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall on Thursday, with the venerable Jörg Demus as soloist.

Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi © Satoshi Mitsuta
Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi
© Satoshi Mitsuta

For readers unfamiliar with the YNSO, a few words are in order before we get to the concert at hand. It is the only orchestra in the world affiliated primarily with a newspaper – a fact that takes on additional significance in an age when newspapers, particularly in North America, are abandoning media coverage of orchestral life in their cities. The YNSO was founded in 1962 by Japan’s three leading media companies: the Yomiuri Shimbun (newspaper), Nippon Television Network Corp, and Yomiuri Telecasting Corp. The Yomiuri newspaper group has the largest daily circulation in the world, as listed in The Guinness Book of Records. It's had nine “principal conductors” (music directors), including Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos and Gerd Albrecht; Sylvain Cambreling has held the post since 2010. The orchestra also has “honorary conductors” (Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Yuri Temirkanov), an “honorary conductor laureate” (Stanislaw Skrowaczewski), an “honorary guest conductor” (Tadaaki Otaka), and a “special guest conductor.” The latter is Kenichiro Kobayashi, who has held the title since 2011, and who led the orchestra in Subscription Concert No. 564

On paper the program looked totally uninspired – no overture, no contemporary music, no Japanese work; just two warhorses from the Austro-German repertory that nearly every concertgoer has heard dozens, even hundreds of times. Yet the performance was anything but routine.

Demus, just one week shy of his 88th birthday (2nd December), shuffled slowly onto the stage dressed in a light, silver-grey suit that nicely complemented his white hair and beard. At his age he had no need, or desire, to turn in a 'blood and thunder' rendition of Beethoven’s Third Concerto. Nor, it seems, does he any longer have the physical capacity to do so, a capacity he demonstrated as recently as 2009 in another C minor opus by Beethoven, the Piano Sonata Op.111 (available on YouTube in a live performance). Hence, this was a curiously withdrawn, restrained, almost introspective interpretation of the concerto, yet at the same time convincing and authoritative. While most pianists show off various levels of volume at the upper end of the dynamic spectrum in this work, Demus gave us a different perspective, demonstrating what can be done at the opposite end. Kobayashi was a responsive collaborator, and refrained from allowing the orchestra to overpower the soloist. All this notwithstanding, the finale could definitely have used more contrast between sections. There was some lovely dialogue between solo flute and bassoon in the slow movement, but otherwise the winds (and that includes horns) were suffering from intonation malaise. For an encore, Demus offered Schubert’s heavenly Impromptu no. 2 in A flat major D935, played with refined poetry and imagination.

After intermission came Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. The first movement was plagued with balance problems, rhythmic irregularities and lack of momentum. So too did the second movement begin, but about midway through – at the moment when that ravishing, lyrical second theme returns in the violins − everything changed. From this point on, Kobayashi seemed intent above all with drawing lush, sumptuous, sustained sound from the orchestra, and the musicians responded splendidly. The third movement might have been a bit heavy for some tastes, but this was counterpoised with the thrilling density of sound Kobayashi drew from the orchestra.

The finale was the best of all, surging with power and passion, saturated with supercharged intensity. Again there were gorgeous solos from the principal flute. The horn and trombone sections distinguished themselves for the balance and homogeneous sonority each displayed, and the timpanist proved himself to be one of the finest in Japan. Overall, each movement improved on the last, and by the end one desperately wanted a fifth movement to the symphony. Kobayashi obliged in the form of an encore – more Brahms (the first Hungarian Dance in G minor), and more of the dense, lushly sustained sound that had so energized the symphony moments earlier.