Seven months ago, when Tokyo’s musical scene was brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 pandemic, it was hard to envisage any orchestra performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by December, an important year-end custom in Japan. But such is the popularity of this work amongst Japanese people that six of Tokyo’s orchestras found a way to perform it, albeit with smaller forces and safety measures in place. For the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in particular, this work also brought the highly anticipated reunion with their Music Director Jonathan Nott, who had been separated from the orchestra for a whole year.

The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and soloists conducted by Jonathan Nott © T. Tairadate | TSO
The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra and soloists conducted by Jonathan Nott
© T. Tairadate | TSO

Throughout his six years at the helm, Nott has constantly been challenging the status quo, and his motto for his players has been to “take a risk”. Back in July, when he was not allowed entry to Japan because of travel restrictions, he conducted two of his scheduled concerts via video screen. It was a risky undertaking, but he showed the players and the fans how much he cared about his orchestra. Finally reunited, this performance of Beethoven’s Ninth was not going to be an ordinary affair. 

Concert venues in Japan are currently allowed a full capacity audience as long as preventive measures are implemented, and Suntory Hall was virtually full. On stage, the orchestra looked pretty normal, except for the string section being slightly smaller than usual, featuring 12 first violins. The main difference was in the chorus, who have been deemed the biggest infection risk on stage in this pandemic. In this performance, the 40 singers of the New National Theatre Chorus were seated well spaced out in the choir stalls. The four soloists, on the other hand, were placed at the front of the stage (in the unusual order of S-B-T-A from left to right), and as a precaution, the five front rows of the auditorium were kept vacant.

Nott’s approach can be summed up as dynamic, punchy, fast (presumably keeping to Beethoven’s tempo markings), yet with unexpected ebb and flow of tempi. It felt as if he was trying to shake up the players from what they have been used to, highlighting various details using extreme tempi, dynamics and the emphasis of individual motifs. At times his approach could seem over-extreme, or done just to surprise, but it’s certainly compelling and makes one listen paying more attention to detail. Above all, the players’ strong belief in Nott’s leadership and interpretation gave the performance persuasive power.

The first movement was stormy and dramatic and the sense of urgency was maintained from beginning to end. Particularly striking was the relentless emphasis of the tutti fortissimo dotted-note motif throughout the movement. In the Scherzo there was a rustic folk dance feel, meanwhile the brisk trio section featured nimbleness from the oboe and lyrical precision from the horn. The slow movement, in contrast, was calm and lyrical, flowing gently like a stream, with strings playing without vibrato.

In the choral finale, instead of the usual massive sonority, there was refreshing clarity and transparency in both the voices and the orchestral parts. In this regard, the expansive Andante maestoso – “Be embraced, you millions” – was particularly moving: a beautiful balance was achieved between the chorus and the supporting trombones, creating a sublime atmosphere. Of the four soloists, Jacquelyn Wagner stood out with her effortlessly produced resonant voice. The coda had the audience at the edge of their seats, with the orchestra working their socks off to keep up with Nott’s final drive. For these last moments at least, I could forget the current woes and let myself be overwhelmed by the energy of this masterpiece.

*****