Move over, Rossini. I’ve just heard the most phenomenal, mind-blowing crescendo in my concert-going life, in a concert hall that could have been custom built for it. About eight minutes into Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, the softest of snare drum patterns starts, to be joined by flutes, then low strings. The musicians of the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra played at such whisper quiet that in most halls, you might not have heard them at all, but in Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, the tiniest touch of a drumstick or breath on the flute was clear. As other instruments joined in, the snare-drum pattern and the theme persisting like a more militaristic version of Boléro, the volume grew. And grew. Ten minutes later, wave after wave of sound crashed over the audience, bass drum and cymbal spurring the orchestra to fever pitch. It’s a loud, resonant hall – although the sound is never muddy – and the thrill of that sheer volume grew ever greater: just when you thought that you must surely have reached the climax, conductor Ken Takaseki would unleash another wave. This was orchestral music at its most blood-pumpingly thrilling.

Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

That proved an impossible level of excitement for the orchestra to maintain throughout the symphony, although there was plenty to appreciate about their playing. The strings showed rare precision of ensemble: so together was each desk that one had the feeling of listening to an oversized string quartet, whether bowed, pizzicato or using percussive effects. When the first violins played pianissimo high harmonics, the sound was ethereal, of rare purity. The brass and woodwind sections were most impressive playing in ensemble, the high point being a marvellously resonant chorale at the beginning of the third movement. Individual solos had shape and purpose, but perhaps lacked that last ounce of character to be memorable. An honourable exception was a succession of truly invigorating solos from the principal bassoon. At the curtain calls, that bassoonist and percussionists on cymbals and drums got by far the loudest applause, indicating that this Saturday afternoon Tokyo audience clearly knows its onions.

Ken Takaseki conducts the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra
© K Miura

Takaseki is neat and compact in style, not appearing to do too much but impressive in his ability to calibrate the orchestra’s dynamics exactly where he wants them. Looking on a micro scale, every part of this symphony was well performed. But with the exception of that extraordinary first movement crescendo, things weren’t as impressive in terms of the grand arc of this work: on several occasions, I found myself losing the thread and feeling that I was missing the full effect of this music with its redolence of suffering and heroism.

Haruma Sato, Ken Takaseki and the Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra
© K Miura

Does an 80-minute symphony really need a 25 minute concerto as a curtain raiser? Certainly not when the concerto is as forgettable as Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in G major. It’s a pleasant enough piece, written in a classical style that wasn’t going to frighten any Soviet horses, but it has no great emotional depth and it fares particularly badly when set against the gut-wrenching Leningrad. Haruma Sato, winner of the 2019 ARD Competition, is a fine young cellist and he played with good sound and plenty of incisiveness. I hope to hear Sato in future in more interesting repertoire.

This concert will stay long in the memory for that incredible Shostakovich first movement, if not for its whole length. And if you’re visiting Tokyo, the Opera City Concert Hall is a true cathedral of sound that should definitely be on your list of destinations.