Live review – CBSO Youth Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada: Elgar Symphony no.1, Takemitsu & Richard Strauss

CBSO Youth Orchestra / Kazuki Yamada (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Sunday 23 February 2020 (3pm)

Takemitsu Dreamtime (1981)
Richard Strauss Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche Op.28 (1894-5)
Elgar Symphony no.1 in A flat major Op.55 (1907-08)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It is hardly an understatement to say that the concerts given each season by the CBSO Youth Orchestra are frequently among the most enterprising and engaging of all those to be heard in Symphony Hall, with this afternoon’s event under Kazuki Yamada proving no exception.

A contrasted pair of tone poems comprised the succinct first half, beginning with a welcome revival of Toru Takemitsu‘s Dreamtime. Conceived as a dance piece for Netherlands Dance Theatre, this is typical of the music from its composer’s maturity in its dissonant (but rarely abrasive) harmonies and its diaphanous textures. Both of these were fully in evidence, with Yamada also mindful to instill a sense of cumulative unfolding as ensures cohesion in music that can easily drift or lose focus. Suffice to add there was little sense of that happening here.

Takemitsu was not a composer given to the humour (ironic or otherwise) permeating Richard Strauss‘s Till Eulenspiegel, heard in an account that initially felt a little stolid in its depiction of that prankster from the Middle Ages; but which soon gained in conviction over the course of Till’s encounters monkish, amorous and social on the way to a vivid depiction of his trial and execution – with its irrepressible pay-off. Assured playing by woodwind and brass were the highlights of a reading to remind one of just how technically exacting this music remains.

112 years on from its premiere and Elgar‘s First Symphony exudes a very different if equally unequivocal virtuosity, such as happily held few fears for these musicians. Japan has a noted line of Elgar interpreters (not least the conductor Tadaaki Otaka), and Yamada demonstrated his credentials with a taut while never inflexible take on the lengthy opening movements – its indelible ‘motto’ theme eloquently and un-fussily rendered, then the main Allegro securing an almost ideal balance between anxiety and rumination across music which strives without ever regaining that calm assurance whose glimpses become the more affecting for their transience. No less impressive was Yamada’s handling of the coda as this winds down towards becalmed resignation, abetted by playing of exquisite finesse from the CBSOYO woodwind and strings.

There was little to fault in a scherzo that alternated the incisive and the wistful with unforced rightness, and how unerringly Yamada judged its transition into an Adagio that, less moulded than it often is, yet unfolding seamlessly towards its serene close. Not that there was anything bland or uninvolving about this music, or a finale that (rightly) followed with minimal pause; the barely suppressed expectancy of its introduction heading into an Allegro whose impetus hardly faltered. Strings never sounded fazed by the contrapuntal intricacy of its development, while brass came into their collective own during an apotheosis where the re-emergence of the motto theme evinced a triumph shorn of bombast or self-regard; the closing bars setting the seal on a performance of a maturity the more remarkable given the age of its exponents.

Elgar One has over the years come in for more than its fair share of objections to its supposed overtones of jingoism and self-gratification. That there was nothing of that here was tribute to Yamada in his drawing so ardent and insightful an interpretation from the CBSOYO players.

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