The Usher Hall has a good Sunday afternoon programme of international orchestras, and the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra is making its first visit to Britain for thirteen years as part of a Japan-UK season of culture. They are conducted by Pietari Inkinen, their young Finnish chief conductor, and we get a part Finnish programme, ending with Sibelius’s second symphony.
The concert begins with a recent Finnish work, In the Beginning, by the composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, who died in 2016. It was commissioned and premiered by the conductor, and this is its British premiere. It features a lovely dark string opening, as if at the dawning of time, and ends with the blaze of sunlight. It is melodic and memorable and makes a good opening work.
The concert continues with an old friend of music in Scotland, the great pianist John Lill, now in his seventies. It is almost 50 years since he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition and shot to fame, and this afternoon he demonstrates he is still playing well, despite his age and having suffered a knife attack to his hands some years ago.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is caught in between the classical and the romantic period. There is a lovely slow orchestral introduction before Lill picks up the familiar opening notes on the piano of the first movement and shows quickly he is still a master of the keyboard despite his age. He is also in harmony with the orchestra, which is being tightly controlled by the young Finnish conductor.
The concert continues after the interval with Requiem for Strings by Japan’s leading classical composer, Toru Takemitsu. This does not, as one might expect, have a strong Japanese influence, but is instead a very European work, with a lovely slow string introduction. Timothy Dowling’s programme notes explain that Takemitsu hated Japanese music because of his experiences in the Second World War, and his major musical influences were instead Debussy, Messiaen, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. This explains the feel of the music: contemporary, intense and reflective, yet melodic and certainly not Japanese!
The concert concludes with Sibeilius’s Symphony No. 2. Written around 1905, it was influenced by the Finnish national movement which was attempting to gain independence from Tsarist Russia. Sibelius admitted his first symphony had been very influenced by Russian composers, particularly Tchaikovsky and Borodin, and since his tone poem Finlandia, he had been trying to find a distinctive Finnish voice. He had also recently spent some time in Italy, and there is some evidence of this in the opening of the symphony, which is very sunny unlike some of the later movements.
Indeed, the second movement is very different and is dominated by long sections of pizzicato on the cellos and basses, and later on death is reflected in the movement. Sibelius had been deeply depressed by the death of his fifteen month old daughter and the suicide of his sister-in-law, and had taken to alcohol, which of course is a depressant. So the second movement is very dark, but is followed by a much livelier third movement and a glowing finale, suggesting he had conquered his depression. Inkinen is very firmly in charge, and the Japanese orchestra are very at home with this most European work. The Usher Hall audience give it a warm response.