The cherry blossom in Tokyo has come late this year, with the evening sakura parties just beginning in Ueno Park. At the southern tip of the park, however, in Bunka Kaikan Hall, a spring breeze of a different kind was blowing as the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra launched into Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat major.

© Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra
© Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra

The orchestral introduction is a long one, allowing us to appreciate the virtues both of the orchestra – reduced, for this work, to a 6-6-6-4-2 chamber format – and of the hall. Playing was smooth, precise and crystal clear, helped by the excellent acoustics of this hall, which has that golden combination of warmth and individual instrumental detail. And there was a lot of individual playing to savour, especially from flutes and bassoons, with cleanly turned phrases and lovely timbre. The first entry of Korean pianist Kun Woo Paik instantly revealed that the virtues of his own playing style matched those of the orchestra: crystal clear articulation, immaculate timing and excellent legato. Paik has a visibly close rapport with Israeli conductor Eliahu Inbal: interplay between piano and woodwind was superb in the first movement, and in the second, piano and string phrases folded into each other with the gentleness of meringue folded into a soufflé mixture.

For all its beauty, this was something of a one-paced reading of the concerto, with repeats and recapitulations not greatly distinct from each other. To risk a cultural stereotype, it was a very Japanese reading: delicate, refined, everything perfectly in balance, with no hint of the possible darkness or melancholy that is so often in the background of Mozart’s work, even when joie de vivre is in the foreground.

Eliahu Inbal © Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra
Eliahu Inbal
© Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra
But the cultural stereotype was torn to shreds in the second half work, Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 15. The orchestra, enlarged to full size and sporting a large percussion section, gave an incisive account of Shostakovich’s ever-mercurial, sarcastic sense of humour. It’s a symphony in which I find it difficult to discern a sense of purpose – the flood of ideas seems to veer in all sorts of directions in a way I can never quite follow – but one that contains dozens of brilliantly orchestrated phrases. There were many passages to savour: perfectly blended sonorous brass chorales in the second movement, echoed later in the strings, superb flute and piccolo solos, a dark if enigmatic tuba solo, a glorious woodwind opening to the third movement leading into sforzando strings. The percussion section fascinated throughout.

There are also large doses of humour, not least in the quotes from other composers. The “grand galop” of the William Tell Overture features prominently in the first movement, both quoted directly or mimicked in rhythm, and invariably subverted in some way, most notably when it morphs into a string passage you’d expect at a tea dance. The Fate Motif from Der Ring des Nibelungen puts in a strong appearance at the start of the fourth movement, together with something that might or might not be trying to turn into Wagner's “Tristan chord”.

Inbal is not a conductor who indulges in histrionics. At 80 years old, he stands ramrod straight and marks time straightforwardly: the most expressive he gets is a certain increase in urgency of a pointed finger to cue in some entry. He and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony are the living proof that conductor and orchestra aren’t there to feel the music or dance the music – their job is to play it. In the biggest, most thunderous climaxes, Inbal stood there, cool as a cucumber, beating time and cueing entries as polyrhythmic orchestral mayhem was unleashed around him with total accuracy.

Honours of the night go to the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra’s percussion section. The symphony closes with one of its most quirky passages of all, played on celesta and various percussion instruments: each one crystal clear in the Bunka Kaikan’s Hall’s pin sharp acoustics. It closed a high quality concert in a hall that deserves firmly to go into Mark Pullinger’s list of “halls I wish we had in London”.