Unpretentious Intelligence in Otaka’s Conducting

Panufnik, Britten, Otaka, Lutosławski: Adam Walker (flute)Anthony Marwood(violin), Lawrence Power (viola), BBC Welsh National Orchestra of Wales, Tadaaki Otaka (conductor), Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff, 28.3.13 (GPu)

Andrzej Panufnik: Katyń Epitaph
Britten (ed. Colin Matthews): Double Concerto in B minor, for Violin, Viola and Orchestra
Hisatada Otaka: Flute Concerto
Lutosławaki: Concerto for Orchestra

This was a fascinating programme made up of works full of interest but in no way over-familiar. Lutosławski’s Concerto, indeed, was the only work I had previously heard in the concert hall, well-played and conducted with the kind of unpretentious intelligence which characterises the work of Tadaaki Otaka. It all made for a satisfying, if unspectacular, concert of works from approximately, the middle years of the last century.

Proceedings began with a moving performance of Andrzej Panufnik’s Katyń Epitaph, which belongs to the years between 1967 and 1969 and looks back to the dreadful events of the Katyń Massacre of 1940, in which more than 20,000 defenceless Poles were executed by the Russians (who only accepted responsibility for the slaughter in 1990, having previously blamed it on the Nazis). Panufnik’s threnody for the victims is notable for the chasteness of its musical manner. It begins with the solo violin (a role very powerfully interpreted by the orchestra’s leader, Lesley Hadfield) playing a high and austere melody which is picked up by woodwind and brass sections, the opening bars of which provide the germ for all that follows. Panufnik’s music was played with the austere dignity it requires in its avoidance of all emotional hysteria or extremes of expressionism. (There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between this work of Panufnik’s and his compatriot Penderecki’s 1960 Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima). For most of its approximately eight-minute length Panufnik’s Epitaph sustains the note of austere lamentation and it is only in its last pages, when the timpani comes to prominence, that anger takes over, in a spirit of forcefully declamatory denunciation, denunciation aimed at least as much at the Western governments who for so long did little in reaction to the massacre as at the Russian People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs who carried it out. Otaka’s sensitive reading meticulously respected the structure and emotional idiom of Panufnik’s music and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales invested the music with a full weight of emotional and moral gravity.

The mood was, properly, altogether lighter in a lively and engaging performance of Britten’s youthful Double Concerto, written from the spring to autumn of 1932 when the composer was eighteen and still a student at the Royal College of Music. Britten didn’t orchestrate the concerto, but his manuscript contained detailed indications of the intended instrumentation and it was from this source that Colin Matthews worked in producing his orchestration in 1987. John Bridcutt aptly suggests (in his Faber Pocket Guide to Britten, 2010) that “in this astonishing score Britten’s true orchestral personality flowers for the first time”. There is, indeed, much that anticipates later, more familiar Britten such as the quality and prominence of the writing for the horn and the frequent harmonic ambiguities. The Concerto’s three movements climax in the tarantella that forms the work’s conclusion.

This programme was blessed with two outstanding soloists: Anthony Marwood and Lawrence Power (who have recorded the work with Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra). In the first movement (marked allegro ma non troppo) there was some especially lyrical playing by Power and the two soloists were engaged and engaging in their interpretation of the ‘conversations’ Britten provides for the two instruments – with their patterns of imitation, call and response, statement and counterstatement, statement and variation etc. In the slightly more expansive second movement (Rhapsody: Poco lento) both soloists played eloquently, above the orchestra, Otaka ensuring a perfect blend and balance. The closing allegro, with its rhythmic patterns initially set by bassoon and timpani was memorable for the wit and adroitness of the partnership between Marwood and Power, instrumental dancing partners constantly adjusting to one another; Britten’s writing here brings some elements of aggression into the dance, before, somewhat surprisingly but very effectively, the music fades away at the work’s close, with some memories of material from the first movement. In the sensitivity with which they listened, and responded, to one another’s playing Marwood and Power were exemplary and conductor and orchestra also contributed with distinction to a fine performance.

After the interval we were treated to a genuine rarity – the flute concerto by Hisatada Otaka (1911-51), father of Tadaaki Otaka. Otaka the elder studied music in both Vienna and Tokyo – in Vienna his teachers included Weingartner (in conducting) and Joseph Marx (in composition). He died at the dreadfully early age of 39 (when his son Tadaaki was little more than a toddler. A brief entry in Grove Online lists only half a dozen orchestral works, including this flute concerto (of which a recording by Jean-Pierre Rampal exists, made with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tadashi Mori, the flautist for whom the work was originally written). Masakata Kanazawa’s entry in Grove speaks of Otaka’s work as being marked by the influence of “German Romanticism, combined with certain characteristics of Japanese nationalism”. But this flute concerto isn’t well described in such terms. Most listeners would, I suspect, find it more reminiscent of French compositions in the same genre – such as the concertos by Francaix, Chaminade or Moquet – although, to be fair, some details of Otaka’s writing for the flute do sound like the work of someone who has heard the shakuhachi! The music is, in Western terms, decidedly old fashioned for its date, pleasantly tonal and unchallenging. The writing for the flute is lyrical and expressive, though mostly very pure in tone. The playing of Adam Walker was fleet-fingered when required to be so and full of long lyrical lines elsewhere. The central movement contains some dream-like slow passages of considerable beauty, by turns mildly plaintive and listless and also a striking passage almost Middle-Eastern in nature, when the flute plays over col legno basses. The opening of the final movement is sparklingly vivacious, led by the soloist, the rhythms and phrasing becoming more assertive and almost aggressive as the orchestra takes over, before the work hurries headlong to a rapidly building climax. Walker’s playing showed him to be an instrumentalist of wholly secure technique, with a range of tonal colours at his disposal. It would, I think, be wrong to make any excessive claims for this work, but it was, if it is understood that such terms are used without any intended condescension, elegant and tuneful, refreshing in its ‘Japanese’ take on Western idioms. I was certainly glad to have had the chance to hear the work.

The concert closed with a work heard rather more often, Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, forceful and showy where Otaka’s Concerto for Flute had been modest and quietly introspective. For me, at least, Lutosławski’s Concerto is one of those works which gets less interesting with each hearing. It has energy in abundance and a rich palette of orchestral colours, but its excitements seem rather factitious, effects calculated for their own sake, rather than vehicles of some deeper moral or emotional structure. Yet some passages remain fascinating – Lutosławski is too much a master of orchestration for that not to be the case. The nocturnal capriccio of the second movement in which Bartok-like scurryings in the woodwinds and shimmering strings frame a declamatory arioso for the trumpets, like gossamer wrapped round burnished gold, is memorable and Otaka directed it sensitively. The opening of the third movement with its resonant chords for harp and basses was well judged and the close of the whole work (which again has Bartokian affinities) in a fierce fanfare packed a powerful punch. Yet there seems, to me at least, too little behind (or within) all the grand noise; the whole is somewhat lightweight alongside the composer’s symphonies.

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales always seems to play well for Tadaaki Otaka (formerly the Principal Conductor of the orchestra and now its Conductor Laureate). One senses a mutual respect and fondness which are reflected in performance. This concert was no exception: as so often Otaka drew playing of the highest order from the Orchestra.

Glyn Pursglove