Friday, February 9, 2014

Barbican Hall, London

Kahchun Wong will in a few months succeed Mark Elder at the Hallé. While one might have wished for something less ubiquitous than Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, its programming ensured that however many interpretations of it any one listener may have heard, Wong was throwing himself into a cauldron of competition – regarding the music itself, not least the speed of the ultimate coda,, and the circumstantial baggage of its composition. From Wong, the first movement was biting, emotionally urgent and without sentiment – compressed, honest, piano prominent – then a somewhat frivolous Scherzo with a laconic Trio (Stephen Bryant a teasing leader). For the lamenting slow movement, Wong reserved his most spacious tempo – inward, tragic, wispy, climactic overspill – and then straight into the Finale, quite fast, with not much room for the accelerando, although this difficult-to-judge feature passed by without much ceremony anyway. By now the promise of the first movement hadn’t always been met, but there was something ominous in the air as the “you will rejoice” coda was approached. Massive like Masur? Bernstein’s quickstep? The Symphony’s premiere-conductor Mravinsky’s middle-of-the-road approach if coloured by inside-knowledge intent? None of these; rather somewhere between the last two conductors and rather inconsequential with it – maybe that was Wong’s point although I wouldn’t bet on it.

Opening with Toru Takemitsu’s Stravinsky-admired Requiem for Strings, this refined yet intense piece, with agitation at its midpoint, was finely played and eloquently shaped; pre-planned as it was, Requiem was sadly in accord with today’s news that Seiji Ozawa had died. Covid, Ukraine, the death of the composer’s mother – such were the events that backgrounded Toshio Hosokawa’s Violin Concerto – ‘Prayer’ – here in its UK premiere, an ethereal piece in communication with the cosmos if with increasing activity as well as tinkling and other percussive sounds, yet seemingly more concerned about something filmic and complex cascades of sound than substance and development if with anxiety for the World’s current catastrophic concerns. This impressive performance, especially from Sayaka Shoji, reveals the music as going beyond the outdoors, upwards, to unknown regions. At twenty-two minutes the piece doesn’t outstay its welcome yet even its relative brevity doesn’t necessarily ensure ‘Prayer’ being sought out for a repeat. Not so Shoji’s encore, the ‘Melodia’ movement from Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin (written for Menuhin) which she spun magically and memorably.