The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra made its annual pilgrimage to Tokyo in November, and the city’s musical faithful flocked to four performances at prices many times higher than they pay to hear their own excellent orchestras. This year the Philharmonic came under the banner of “150 Years Friendship Japan-Austria”. The concerts were on the short side, which did nothing to deter concertgoers from filling 2,000-seat Suntory Hall to capacity for all four performances. As is the norm with the Philharmonic’s visits to Japan, they brought no repertory that even suggested the city has any living composers left in it. Viennese composers were represented by Bruckner and the Strausses; the most recent music by any composer was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913). Nevertheless, the Philharmonic was a huge success with audiences at both concerts I attended.

Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Suntory Hall

On 11th November, Christian Thielemann led the orchestra through Bruckner’s massive 80-minute Eighth Symphony in what may have been the loudest performance of this work ever heard. But far too often it was noise without reason. The symphony did not unfold in magisterial blocks of sound; instead, Thielemann drove the orchestra to play with a force bordering on madness. The single grandest climax of each movement left little impact, as there was nothing left to give by the time these moments arrived. The breadth, grandeur and majesty of this symphony eluded Thielemann; his primary goal seemed to be whipping up the decibels at every opportunity. Make no mistake – the Vienna Philharmonic can put out enormously impressive sound. The body and weight of this sound is a phenomenon in itself, and in Suntory Hall’s outstanding acoustical setting, the effect can be breathtaking. Three extra brass players not called for in the score added to the blaze of sound, and, for the final two pages alone, Thielemann added a contrabassoon and a second timpanist. Special mention must go to the gorgeous playing of the horn quartet and the Wagner tuba quartet, the latter in a prominent role throughout three of the four movements. Exaggerated pauses – ritardandos and rubatos – some of them slightly ridiculous, further contributed to the lack of musical intelligence on Thielemann’s part.

There was no introductory work on the program (why not? ― there was plenty of time for one, perhaps something by a contemporary Viennese composer?), but the Philharmonic offered Josef Strauss’ heavenly Sphärenklänge Waltz as an encore, which explained the presence on stage of a snare drum and bass drum, neither of which was required in the Bruckner symphony. Here, the Philharmonic showed its best side in music they know intimately, music that’s in their blood, and that no conductor can force them to play indifferently. It was the perfect balm to overwrought Bruckner.

Christian Thielemann
© Suntory Hall

Four days later the Philharmonic, again with Thielemann at the helm, offered a mostly Richard Strauss programme, with a few bits of the other Strauss family thrown in. Thielemann tore through Don Juan with a vengeance, allowing the orchestra every opportunity to exhibit its much-vaunted virtuosity and enormously impressive sound, but little in the way of a satisfying musical experience. Much the same could be said for Till Eulenspiegel. Thielemann’s insistence on maximum force and volume so much of the time became wearisome after a while. Furious tremolos from sixty string players created a thick carpet of sound that often obscured more important material from other sections. Little of Till’s impish behaviour found its way into the performance. The 23-minute Suite from Der Rosenkavalier, which concluded the programme, gave the Philharmonic still more opportunities to wow the audience (the horns really whooped it up here) but exaggerated rubatos, protracted silences, and the near-absence of anything resembling a true pianissimo detracted from the beauty of the music itself.

Two short pieces by other Strausses opened the second half of the concert, a vehement overture to Johann II’s second-best-known stage work, Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) and Josef’s Dynamiden Waltz, which provided an oasis of elegance in an otherwise harried concert. Josef’s Ohne Sorgen! polka was the zesty, two-minute encore, played at breakneck speed and supplemented by whoops and shouts from the musicians, that sent most of the audience away feeling exhilarated and fulfilled.