Brahms and Debussy in bright, unblended strokes
The NHK Symphony bills itself as Japan’s first professional orchestra, tracing its origins to 1926 and chronicling among its recent music directors Charles Dutoit and Wolfgang Sawallisch.
Vladimir Ashkenazy took over in 2004, and it was he who brought this disciplined band to the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon as the first stop on a U.S. tour that includes concerts in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston before concluding in New York on Oct. 23.
NHK TV was on hand to record the proceedings -- as well as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Sunday matinee -- for later broadcast in Japan.
Ashkenazy and company may not have had much time to get the measure of the hall for their three-part program. The playing tended to be in primary colors. At peaks, the brass sounded harsh and extreme. Much of the time, the strings sounded thin and edgy. The aim appeared to be a blended sectional sound. Individual voices or interplay among instruments -- winds, for instance -- where it might be desirable, rarely materialized.
The program started with a blockbuster Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, with Helene Grimaud as the soloist. Grimaud has recorded separately with conductors Pierre Boulez and the L.A. Philharmonic’s own Esa-Pekka Salonen for Deutsche Grammophon. So she has strong champions.
Here, however, she took a lyrical, rather self-effacing approach. Even in her powerhouse double octaves and other virtuosic passages, she seemed disinclined to impose a personal point of view on a romantic concerto that is full of angst, introspection and energy.
For his part, Ashkenazy looked less interested in shaping phrases than in keeping a kind of oceanic forward movement going, especially in the dreamy slow middle movement. The net result was a plain-spoken, somewhat uninvolving performance.
The same approach made more impact in Debussy’s “La Mer,” the first work after the intermission, although at times the colors seemed more Fauvist than Impressionist.
The program ended with a performance of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” that was full of sharply drawn, contrasting characters. The nobility of the “Nimrod” variation was expansively established, making it perhaps the most expressive moment of the program, although it was marred a bit by the harshness of the brass at the climax.