Two big surprises awaited concertgoers at the Japan Philharmonic’s concert in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall last Friday night. One was the sensational young soloist in Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, Sunao Goko. The other was a seldom-heard Russian symphony that just about blew the roof off the hall.

Alexander Lazarev © Japan Philharmonic
Alexander Lazarev
© Japan Philharmonic

There was no overture. (Why? We heard just 67 minutes of music.) The program launched directly into the concerto, a 37-minute masterpiece completed in 1948 and premiered by David Oistrakh in 1955. Much of it is darkly introspective, reflective and somber in mood – hardly material to inspire Soviet workers to greater productivity or to further some political cause. Shostakovich prudently waited until after Stalin’s death (1953) to present this concerto to the public. Oistrakh called the solo role “very profound, Shakespearean, demanding from the artist the greatest emotional and intellectual dedication.” This it received from the young Japanese violinist Sunao Goko.

Two long, slow, darkly moody movements alternate with shorter movements full of rhythmic zest, sardonic humor and virtuosic fireworks. Sunao’s sound is not as big and powerful as Oistrakh’s (whose is?) but he knows how to project effectively even in the softest passages. He is intimately familiar with the Shostakovich idiom, and put across the ethos of each movement with electrifying results. The five-minute cadenza linking the two final movements moved inexorably from quiet meditation to pyrotechnical displays of molten lava. Conductor Alexander Lazarev, a favorite guest conductor with this orchestra, provided ideal support, highlighting the numerous touches of unusual color from instruments like the tam-tam, celesta, harp and contrabassoon in the opening movement, guiding the motoric rhythms of the second with the tension of a tightly-wound spring, keeping the passacaglia motif clearly in focus at all times in the third, and driving the finale to its conclusion with rock-solid pulse while eliciting razor-sharp interjections from the xylophone.

Seasoned concertgoers are familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich’s Fifth, and Prokofiev’s Fifth. Lazarev brought another Russian Fifth, one not generally known, by Alexander Glazunov, whose life exactly straddled the 19th and 20th centuries (1865-1936). Glazunov steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the new currents swirling around Europe, resisting the advanced chromaticism of Wagner, the polyphonic complexities of Strauss, and the atonal explorations of Schoenberg. No, Glazunov stuck to the past, to tradition, and he stuck exceedingly well. His Fifth Symphony (1895) brims with romantic gestures, broad themes, rhythmic zing and Russian folksong.

Lazarev obviously loves this symphony, and he drove the musicians to almost frenzied levels of involvement. The outer movements blazed with dazzling color and dynamic swells, the orchestra responding to Lazarev’s direction with supercharged energy. This resulted in moments of excessive blare from the brass, but, hey, what’s the Russian carnival spirit all about anyway? It was all perfectly in character. The second movement is Mendelssohnian in spirit, tripping along lightly, glistening and sparkling with notable contributions from piccolo, glockenspiel and triangle. It also gave the Japan Philharmonic’s strings the opportunity to show just how superbly disciplined this ensemble is. The third is the most Tchaikovskian in its melodic outlines, harmonic progressions, and blocks of instrumental sonorities. The finale features much use of Russian folksong and dance impulses. Brass and percussion worked overtime as this little-known Fifth Symphony roared to a spectacular conclusion. A great symphony? Probably not. A great, rip-roaring half hour of entertainment? Absolutely!