The NHK Symphony Orchestra’s Highly Committed Mahler

08/03/2017

Takemitsu, Mahler: NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo / Paavo Järvi. Royal Festival Hall, London, 6.3.2017 (CC)

Takemitsu Requiem for strings (1957)
Mahler – Symphony No.6 in A minor (1903-06)

Tokyo’s NHK Orchestra, formed in 1926, has worked with many of the greatest names from the West over the years, including such luminaries as Karajan, Ansermet, Keilberth and Matačić. Currently, they list the present conductor, Paavo Järvi, as Chief Conductor, with Charles Dutoit as Music Director Emeritus, Vladimir Ashkenazy as Conductor Laureate, and André Previn as Honorary Guest Conductor. There is quite a tradition at work here; interesting to note, too, that the line-up named in the programme appears to be exclusively Japanese (it was not a complete listing, as only six horns were listed while nine were on stage; only one harpist was honoured, but two were there). But visually there were no exceptions from where I was sitting to the ethnicity: the orchestra is aiming for homogeneity of approach, one would assume, and that paid off.

Järvi used antiphonal violins throughout. Double-basses extended across the back of the hall from literally behind the first violins and towards the centre of the stage; two harps sat at the rear of the second violins.

There was no interval in this concert: simply Takemitsu and Mahler. Takemitsu’s Requiem is only around ten minutes long. The composer was only 27 at the time of composition; he dedicated it to the memory of his mentor, the rather short-lived Fumio Hayasaka (1914-55). The piece requires full and unwavering concentration from the players, and the NHK strings were up to its demands. The first violins were preternaturally together in the long lines, the violas magnificently plaintive. The dynamic range was, too, exemplary, the opening almost inaudible and yet perfectly controlled. The somewhat Bergian aching gestures were lovely. Perhaps a touch more depth of string sound would have nailed the deal. Ryo Sasaki’s viola solos were the highlight; first concertmaster Fuminori Maro Shinozaki’s violin solos were almost as good, marred by just a touch of bow shake at the very end. A lovely and affecting performance overall, though, marvellously shaped by a batonless Järvi.

Preternaturally efficient stage management meant that there was little gap between the two pieces on the programme. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is a huge challenge, one that was taken on with aplomb by the NHK orchestra. The enthusiasm was visually obvious in the way, for example, the clarinet’s interpretation of “schalltrichter auf” really meant his instrument was pointed way up in the air. None of this was just for effect, either; Järvi’s ear for detail meant that everything was beautifully balanced (save, perhaps, for the off-stage cowbells, a difficult effect to bring off convincingly: here, they felt just a bit too present). Discipline was never in question, and shrillness when appropriate was never shirked. Järvi’s middle-of-the-road tempo meant the march was pesante but not overbearing.

There is some debate as to which movement comes next. Take the Scherzo next, and it emerges as blood-brother to the first movement’s march, as indeed it did here. What really impressed was the NHK’s unrelenting way with the score, and the fact that the music was really quite wild (not, perhaps, a trait one immediately associates with Japanese orchestras). There was a real feeling of everyone giving of their best, and more. The beautifully judged close led to the third movement, here the Andante moderato. And it really was an Andante, flowing perfectly and including a gorgeous cor anglais solo: alas the cor anglais player was not listed separately. The antiphonally placed violins worked a treat in this movement; the climax almost glowed, but not quite.

And so to that huge finale. Perhaps the opening could have had more intensity (one spent the time admiring that unanimity of the first violins). Yet the triumph here was Järvi’s interpretation, perfectly judged structurally. The two hammer blows made a great impact, and the return to the movement’s opening was, as was by now to be expected, well managed, as was the stately brass polyphony towards the close. True, we are a long way from the psyche-crushing, angst-laden live 1988 Bernstein with the Vienna Philharmonic on DG (possibly the greatest performance of this piece captured on disc; and one that incidentally also puts the Scherzo second), but Järvi and his forces did a cracking job.

I saw some players shuffling music around after the end of the Mahler; surely no encore after this piece?. No, no encore, blissfully. Just Mahler resounding in one’s ears on leaving, as it should be. A most involving and enjoyable evening.

Colin Clarke

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