wed 17/04/2024

Faust, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Yamada, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Faust, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Yamada, Barbican Hall

Faust, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Yamada, Barbican Hall

Great new concerto, dazzling young conductor - does it get better than this?

Kazuki Yamada: New conducting kid on the block, loved by his orchestral playersMarco Borggreve

It's rare for demanding though not, I think, unduly cynical orchestral musicians to wax unanimously lyrical about a new conducting kid on the block. But that's what happened at the 2009 Besançon International Conducting Competition when BBC Symphony players in residence placed their bets on the obvious winner, 30-year-old Kazuki Yamada.

He repaid their good faith last night in a real stunner of a London debut programme featuring two very different challenges to his long-phrasing vision and the most dramatic new violin concerto I've heard in the last two decades.

That's saying something given such lively specimens as those of John Adams and James MacMillan (alongside which a work like the other week's Rilke-inspired Music for Violin and Orchestra by Detlev Glanert doesn't begin to compare). Tyrolean-born and based composer Thomas Larcher makes less of an effort to ingratiate himself with his audience, at least after his Violin Concerto leaves its initial childlike-minimal comfort zone, but he still knows how to earn the listener's knife-edge concentration. The sense of communication was palpable from the minute the natural and collegial Isabelle Faust (pictured below by Felix Broeder) walked on to the platform - I don't know if I've ever been inclined to gush about concert dress, but her elegant lilac and white somehow fitted the occasion - and spilled over into an unusually warm reception.

Isabelle_Faust_2Much time seemed to have passed in between, which I mean in a good way, since Larcher knows how to stretch and condense it; the underlying rhythmic backbone was well served by Yamada, and a very human tragedy played itself out in two very different acts. Both surely owe something to the journey from innocence to experience, the clash between childhood dreams and adult crises, though Larcher, like MacMillan in the similar trajectory of his concerto, leaves it to the listener to supply the mental images. What's for sure is that the prelapsarian arpeggios and scales rather blithely sung by the violinist at the start can't survive (a colleague thought that Arvo Pärt might sue for plagiarism, but I don't think a stepwise, overlapping minor descent is copyright, and Larcher (pictured below by Richard Houghton) has his own luminous orchestral colouring from the start). White-note Minimalism turns out only to be a point of departure, swamped as it soon is by driven chromatic uprushes, with hallucinatory sounds emerging all Larcher's own - above all a fabulously nightmarish staggered glissandoing of double basses against the tocking of cowbells hit by drumstricks while the soloist balances on the highwire with all the strength she can muster.

08The arpeggios of childhood manage to make a comeback here, but not in the second movement, which starts with a bewitching circle of harmonies above a ground bass but can't hold on to such incandescent sanity for long. The collapse this time seems mortal, with violins wailing like distant sirens and the violinist, after a desperate accompanied cadenza struggle, finds herself trapped in a parallel universe, hearing the consonant kalimba tones of the percussion which joined her at the start but unable to make contact with them. True, not all the elaborate tone colours could hope to register in the hall - I saw but couldn't really hear the massage balls rubbed over the piano strings towards the end, an effect I'm assured comes across in one of Larcher's chamber works, while the discretion of the accordion was probably deliberate - but this was a marvellously engaging event by any standards. It's clearly Faust's piece almost as much as Larcher's - she premiered it in Vienna two years ago, though I hope other violinists take it up - and I want to hear it again soon (very easy over the next week thanks to Radio 3's listen-again facility following the live broadcast).

No popping of orchestral champagne corks inaugurated Yamada's first appearance at the Barbican. A vivacious showpiece like Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture might have been in order; instead he chose the concisely sombre Requiem for Strings which effectively launched his fellow countryman Tōru Takemitsu's fame in the West back in 1957. It hardly seems so momentous a work, but this was the most expressively nuanced realisation of its aching violin lines and the most vividly forward-moving push for its little surges of close-to-the-bridge disruption I've heard, following recordings of varying distinction.

The brilliance came last, and how the players must have been longing for Rachmaninov's warm, if sometimes overwhelming, embrace after all their tough, section-by-section work on Ferneyhough last weekend. Yamada's view of the Second Symphony tends to the earthy right from the brooding cellos and basses of the opening bars. Yet it never becomes too heavy - as we might well expect from Semyon Bychkov in the next two instalments of the BBCSO's mini-Rachmaninov festival - thanks to his hyper-alert rhythmic instincts. We've got so used to a slightly apologetic spring in the heel of Rachmaninov interpretation that the lushness as well as the muscle of this ever-improving string section came as a surprise, reminding us how saturated the composer's sound is in this of all works but with Yamada always knowing how to billow out, rein in and sustain long paragraphs to vivid effect.

I thought I could resist a sentimental tear in the hoary, now-clichéd love theme of the slow movement, but first clarinet Richard Hosford's infinitely extended tenderness and the bewitching orchestral weave around it defeated me, and the finale was colossally alive from start to finish. How an audience can stand up at the end for the lower-temperature perfection of the Berlin Philharmonic and not, with a few exceptions, for this, I don't quite understand, but the "seat-of-pants excitement" one daily critic lamented as absent in Britain is alive and well. It says so much for our current state of orchestral health that Yamada is merely the next in a stunningly distinguished line of conductors, but don't doubt that he'll be back to give more concerts as legendary as any in this oddly magical business.

I thought I could resist a sentimental tear in the now-clichéd love theme of the slow movement, but first clarinet Richard Hosford's infinitely extended tenderness defeated me

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