I often wonder if Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi has a Doppelgänger or two. He is, of course, one of Japan’s most eminent cellists, but to add to that, he is the President of Suntory Hall, which is a pretty busy role, and furthermore he is the artistic director of music festivals and competitions, and on the board of many committees. In short, he is an elder statesman of the Japanese classical music scene. One wonders when he finds the time to practise! Yet when he walked onto the Blue Rose stage to open Suntory Hall’s annual Chamber Music Garden festival, one knew he was happiest on stage, especially when playing chamber music with fellow musicians.

Tatsuki Narita, Mami Hagiwara and Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi © Suntory Hall
Tatsuki Narita, Mami Hagiwara and Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi
© Suntory Hall

Tsutsumi produced this opening concert himself. You would think that as the producer he would play the best bits and let other people do the hard work. Not so. He programmed four pieces where the cello plays a substantial part, including a world première of a solo cello work he commissioned from composer Kenji Sakai. In the chamber works he was joined by two up-and-coming Japanese musicians (both winners of major European competitions), Tatsuki Narita (violin) and Mami Hagiwara (piano), whose combined age was still far below Tsutsumi’s.

Tsutsumi and Hagiwara opened the concert with Beethoven’s lyrical Cello Sonata no. 4 in C major, an unusual two-movement work. It is obviously one that Tsutsumi has lived with for a long time, and he played the opening meditative Andante searchingly with beautifully controlled tone. Hagiwara started out a little cautiously – perhaps slightly intimidated by the occasion – but by the Allegro vivace she became more assertive and displayed some lively playing. The slow section of the second movement had a yearning quality, reminding me of Beethoven’s song cycle An der ferne Geliebte which was composed around the same time. Understandably, it was Tsutsumi who was mostly leading the dialogue, but they both performed with warmth.

Tsutsumi then teamed up with violinist Tatsuki Narita in Martinů’s rarely heard Duo no. 1 for violin and cello. It is actually a fun and vivacious piece – with a demanding cadenza for cello in the second movement – that should be played more often. The work is largely neo-classical, although Martinů’s characteristic use of harsh polytonality was especially prominent in the opening movement, which they brought out with raw energy. Narita has a natural solistic flair and played confidently in his one-to-one dialogue with Tsutsumi, but also responded delicately to every nuance of the cello when in an accompanying role.

Sakai’s new work Réminiscence / Polymonophonie for unaccompanied cello is a technically demanding set of theme and 19 variations based on the plangent Sarabande from Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite. The characteristic downward sighing motifs of the original monophonic theme undergo a myriad of polyphonic treatments, hence the title Polymonophonie. Tsutsumi faced the technical challenges bravely and resiliently, but when the original theme returned after all the pyrotechnics there was a sense of coming back full circle.

Finally, all three players came together for Dvořák’s charming “Dumky” Trio. In this six-movement work where the mood alternates almost seamlessly between melancholic song and happy dance, there are some tempo changes that could be a little tricky for ad hoc groups, but they were mainly negotiated smoothly. Hagiwara seemed more at home in this Romantic idiom and she played with colour and poetry, while Narita’s bright tone soared gloriously in the high-lying melodies. The march-like fourth movement which begins with the melancholic cello melody was a highlight, and there was a beautiful touch when Tsutsumi played the melody without vibrato when it returned later in the movement.

If at times it felt like a masterclass in chamber music playing from Tsutsumi, nevertheless it a heartwarming and satisfying concert. In fact, inter-generational ensemble-making is an important element of the Chamber Music Garden festival and it was a privilege for us to share the experience.