If you had to choose between three Haydn symphonies in one evening or two of Beethoven, which would it be? For me, unequivocally the former, especially when performed by the forces of Paavo Järvi and Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. This was exactly what they offered on two consecutive nights at the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall during their current Asian tour, their first visit to Japan since the pandemic. Obviously the Haydn programme is more difficult to sell for the hall (especially when Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Berlin were performing Brahms at the same time at Suntory Hall!), but the Kammerphilhamonie have forged a strong relationship with the venue over the years – with projects such as the Schumann and Brahms symphonic cycles – and the hall was full of loyal fans eager to hear what they would conjure up now with Haydn.

Paavo Järvi conducts the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
© Michiharu Okubo | Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation

Järvi’s focus on Haydn’s twelve “London symphonies” is an ongoing project, which started in earnest last year in Vienna. For the concert in Tokyo, he chose the Symphony no. 96 in D major from Haydn’s first trip to London, and symphonies 102 and 104 from his second trip. The size and formation of the Kammerphilharmonie is already ideal for these symphonies that wowed and captivated the 18th-century London audience with a rich orchestral palette, humour and innovative ideas. Although it’s hard for us to listen to Haydn with totally fresh ears (knowing all that came after), Järvi and the Kammerphilharmonie’s muscular and punchy approach showed us the kind of impact that the first audience must have experienced.

They opened the programme with no. 102, which begins a solemn introduction in which anticipation is built up over 22 bars, here eloquently realised by the orchestra. The melody of the Vivace main section is light and nimble initially, but then Haydn accents it with so many sforzandi as the music develops, giving the music a dramatic feel. The orchestra dug deep to highlight the articulations and dynamic contrasts, not only in this movement but throughout all three symphonies. The Adagio featured some lovely solo playing by cello principal Marc Froncoux and flute principal Bettina Wild – everyone in this band is equally fine as soloist and ensemble player. In the Menuet and the Finale, Järvi brought out the rustic and earthy elements, and the unexpected harmonic turns in the coda were delightfully emphasised. 

No. 96 has the nickname “Miracle”, so called because a chandelier crashed down during its premiere in 1791 yet miraculously no one was hurt; nowadays, this incident is attributed to the premiere of the Symphony no.102 instead. Perhaps this is why the two works were paired in the first half. The highlight of this symphony was undoubtedly the masterful Andante second movement. It begins with a charming but unassuming tune, but Haydn then develops it in unexpected directions, adorning it with counter-melodies, turning its triplet motif into a minor-key fugato, and capping it off with a cadenza-like coda with solo passages for the two violins and woodwinds. Järvi paced and shaped the movement beautifully and it was a sheer delight.

Meanwhile, no. 104 displayed the Kammerphilharmonie’s symphonic brilliance. Despite its chamber size (seven violins each, placed antiphonally), the musicians play with such intensity and determination – as well as joy – that they can sound more dynamic than an average full-size orchestra, as was evident especially in the outer movements. After a swift but elegantly shaped second movement, the Menuet was buoyant and playful, especially in the handling of the abrupt pauses – a Haydn speciality. Perhaps it was the catchy folk-like theme of the final movement or Haydn’s Hungarian links that prompted Järvi to choose as the encore Hungarian composer Leo Weiner’s Divertimento