Tokyo Opera City in Shinjuku is well known for its acoustically magnificent Takemitsu Memorial Concert Hall, but tucked away in the basement is the lesser known Recital Hall, a flexible space with a capacity of 265. In this intimate venue, a longstanding recital series called “B→C: From Bach to Contemporary Music” has been held since 1998. The series gives emerging musicians an opportunity to present a full-length programme of their choice, provided it includes one work by J.S. Bach and a contemporary work. Some musicians focus on Bach, whereas others emphasise the contemporary aspect, even commissioning new works.

Kazuhito Yamane
© Michiharu Okubo | Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation

For his B→C recital, 25-year-old violinist Kazuhito Yamane chose a balanced programme of old and new – Biber, Bach, Bartok, Berio and Widmann – but his decision to go totally solo was a brave one. As a violinist, there is plenty of repertoire to fill a two-hour unaccompanied programme, but by including two technically highly challenging works, Berio’s Sequenza VIII and Widmann’s fiendish Etude III, he certainly set high standards for himself. Currently studying with Christoph Poppen in Munich, he is one of a crop of outstanding young Japanese violinists with individual voices.

The order of Yamane’s programme was C→B, opening with Berio’s Sequenza VIII and closing with Bach’s Partita no. 2 in D minor with the Chaconne. Two of the works in the first half were directly influenced by the Chaconne – the Sequenza and Bartok’s solo sonata. It is no secret that the Sequenza was a tribute to Bach, specifically the Chaconne. The work’s central idea is the strong tension between two notes, A and B, and the idea is explored through various “instrumental gestures” (Berio’s term) before reaching a sort of reconciliation at the end. Yamane gave a brilliant and intense reading, and his control of the tone was particularly superb – clean bowing despite all the technical demands. Each of the instrumental gestures was well delineated, and at the same time, he achieved the sense of the arc of the whole.

The Chaconne theme continued with the Passacaglia (related form to the chaconne) from Biber’s Rosary Sonatas. Yamane’s approach to Biber felt somewhat restrained. Although he employed a “pure” tone with very little vibrato, he didn’t go for period-style articulation but more for smoothness and transparency of tone. For me, though, it didn’t quite capture the solemnity of the work. This was followed by a compelling rendition of Bartók’s only solo violin sonata, famously inspired by the young Menuhin. Yamane seemed most at home here, achieving an ideal balance between technical precision and flair. Admittedly he didn’t emphasise the earthiness of Bartók’s musical language, but there was plenty of contrast and dynamism, especially in the tightly developed second movement.

The second half opened with a phenomenal and breathtaking performance of Widmann’s Etude III. The music, laid out over five music stands(!), could be described as “Paganini on acid”, and it’s ten minutes of non-stop virtuosity, especially displaying left hand pyrotechnics. Frankly, at some points I just had to laugh at the craziness of the finger acrobatics (typical Widmann, one could say), but hats off to Yamane for pulling it off so spectacularly. And finally, Bach. On the whole, his approach to the Second Partita was similar to the Biber: neither Romantic or period or sachlich, it was elegant but clinical. While the dance elements were not too marked, the way he created elaborate contrasts in the repeat sections was delightful. The Chaconne was surprisingly transparent and light too, bringing a breath of fresh air to a masterpiece loaded with history.