This was a rare opportunity to catch the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra under the helm of its charismatic Finnish Chief Conductor, Pietari Inkinen. Indeed, it is now thirteen years since this orchestra was last heard in London and on Friday made its Cadogan Hall debut as part of a mini UK tour that included Leeds and Edinburgh. Overall the playing was impressive; disciplined and cleanly articulated, if leaving a feeling that weight of tone was occasionally absent, and climaxes somewhat contained. But bookending this largely 20th-century programme with Finnish music was a neat idea and drew attention to the orchestra’s strong association with Sibelius whose complete symphonies this orchestra has recorded.

Pietari Inkinen
© Nguyen Phuong

In the Beginning (2015) by Einojuhani Rautavaara made for an atmospheric start. Scored for timpani, marimba, tam-tam, harp and strings, the work builds from the depths with mysterious rising cello phrases, glimmers of ideas, faintly stirring and striving amid dense string layers (violas placed on the conductor’s right) and peppered by colourful percussive effects. Curiosity was certainly roused with this dawn-like awakening, yet just as I had begun to enjoy its burgeoning ideas, they were suspended as in in mid-air, an abrupt finish that merely raised the question “Why?” An extended upbeat to something that never happened – the whole enigmatic and briefly satisfying, despite its seven-minutes too short for the material it occupied.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto followed in a flowing and well-defined performance from Sheku Kanneh-Mason with the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra as sensitive collaborators. No fortissimo attack at the start, no dramatic oratory, rather a considered rumination and, in many ways, all the more distinctive for its containment. It was an unsentimental journey through the opening movement, its vistas revealed with affection and understatement, Kanneh-Mason guiding us through the movement’s poetic half-lights, nothing overbearing or forced and yet revealing a fabulous technique with flawless intonation. Whilst not yet possessing a big, fulsome tone, there was much to enjoy from whispered intimacies leading into the second movement, given with puckish delight, athleticism and scintillation absolutely gripping here, as was an eyebrow-raising tempo. His maturity goes well beyond his years and to the Adagio he commanded attention with delicacy of phrasing and expressive tenderness, imparting a rich glow but finding room for some fabulous pianissimo. The finale was a rollicking affair; orchestral colour emerging from the shadows with prominent, but not obtrusive brass and woodwind, and the whole demonstrating an involving partnership between Inkinen’s flexible direction and Kanneh-Mason outstanding artistry.

After the interval the Requiem for String Orchestra by Toru Takemitsu left a deep impression. Dedicated to the Japanese composer Fumio Hayasaka, the work is an austere meditation on the divine; haunting and uncompromising with a spare, ascetic beauty. Polished playing was not always in evidence, but the work’s expressive intensity was fully realised.

Sibelius has long been a part of this orchestra’s repertoire and this account of his Second Symphony brought assurance and vitality, if not edge of seat excitement. Solo contributions were nicely pointed and the first movement’s overall structure well shaped, climaxes just short of being roof-raising. There followed Slavic fervour and momentum-building drama, a fine oboe solo brought poignancy to a feverish third movement and the finale eventually took hold, gaining in emotional focus and rousing at the finish. In summary, a thoroughly respectable performance.