The Japan Philharmonic, just back from its sixth European tour under the leadership of its Finnish Principal Conductor Pietari Inkinen, gave its 346th subscription concert in Yokohama on 27th April (in Japan orchestras number every performance right from the first date in each location).

Conductor Pietari Inkinen © Nguye Phuong
Conductor Pietari Inkinen
© Nguye Phuong

The concert began, appropriately enough, with a piece entitled In the Beginning by the recently deceased Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-2016). Ironically, it was written at the very end of his life. The six-minute work sets out to depict in sound the progress from darkness to light, or perhaps from chaos to stability, and it began promisingly with densely packed lower strings cloaked in ominous mystery, but thereafter failed to project a sense of growth or development. The ending was so unexpected, and abrupt, one almost felt cheated. “An extended upbeat to something that never happened” was David Truslove’s description of the work in his Bachtrack review of the Orchestra’s recent appearance in Cadogan Hall. Nevertheless, the piece served to indicate that Inkinen’s focus was on infusing the music with expressive gestures, a quality that carried over into the rest of the programme.

Next came the glistening, crystalline To the Edge of Dream by Japan’s most famous composer, Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), a rare case of a score that depends not on melody or rhythm to make its impact yet one that fascinates and commands attention from beginning to end. “Listening to my music,” the composer wrote, “can be compared with walking through a garden and experiencing the changes in light, pattern and texture”. And so was To the Edge of Dream, which featured a solo guitar played with sensitivity and finesse by Kaori Muraji. Such are the excellent acoustics of the 2,500-seat Kanagawa Kenmin Hall that every note was audible and fell gently on the ear. In addition, Takemitsu had taken the precaution of writing the score so that the soloist and orchestra seldom play together or compete for attention, but instead alternate in the manner of civilised dialogue. The kaleidoscopic orchestration includes a typically (for Takemitsu) large percussion section that contributes significantly to the fascinating evanescent sonorities and sensuous dissonance of the music. The enigmatic title encouraged a mood of contemplation and wonder, qualities Inkinen thoroughly explored in his interpretation.

After intermission came Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in a performance that proved revelatory. Rather than ramping up the decibels and letting the work run on steroids, as do so many others, Inkinen infused the work with a lovely, singing quality to an extent I’ve not heard before. Lyricism was the keynote throughout, Inkinen forcing listeners to reevaluate what is often regarded as little more than a rollercoaster of thrills run amok, particularly in the outer movements. Every note in every musical line had meaning. And there was no rushing the beat, ever – a fault so common today as to be almost epidemic. Beautifully blended brass, a string section of virtuosos and a dynamic range from pppp to fff are among the qualities that now make the Japan Philharmonic a truly world-class orchestra.

Sibelius’ Valse triste provided the perfect encore to calm the spirit after the symphony's rousing conclusion. Beginning from almost nothing (one sensed a faint vibration in the air before hearing sound) it developed into a canvas of pastel colours and exquisite expressive touches.

****1