After his self-imposed exile from Russia in 1918, Sergei Rachmaninov never conducted his Second Symphony. Perhaps it was too painful a reminder of home – there’s something so quintessentially Russian about it. The Second can be an hour-long nostalgic wallow and faced criticism for meandering. Indeed, until the 1970s it was usually performed with cuts that hacked it back to 45 – or even 35 – minutes. But there were no longueurs in the performance by Paavo Järvi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo, on the London leg of their European tour, a propulsive account, driven along urgently. 

Paavo Järvi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra
© Belinda Lawley

This wasn’t the Rachmaninov that Stravinsky described as "a six-and-a-half foot scowl". Järvi led a passionate, ebullient reading. The NHK strings have a wonderfully dark, mahogany sound, evident from the sonorous cellos and double basses and the honeyed violins, split antiphonally, caressing phrases with the utmost care. Järvi’s conducting is totally non-flashy, never drawing attention to himself. He kept the opening Largo moving, more ardent and yearning, yet still streaked with melancholy. The transition into the Allegro moderato unfolded naturally and his flirtatious rubato teased the listener in each gentle push and pull. The engine room violas kept everything taut and rhythmically tidy in a Scherzo that rattled along, oboes and clarinets playing bells up, but Järvi pulled back to allow the strings time to swoon and sigh with deftly applied portamento. Although principal clarinet Kenji Matsumoto was given space to shape the great melody, the melting Adagio always had a sense of momentum. Järvi pushed headlong into the finale, the brass, despite a few imperfect entries, playing with a confident swagger right up to Rachmaninov’s punchy sign-off. One of the finest accounts of the Second I’ve heard in concert. 

The evening had started with a postcard from Tokyo. Toru Takemitsu’s How slow the wind, taking its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson, is a fragile tone poem, lovingly handled by the NHK, all wispy harp and percussion and the waft of an alto flute. Did I detect a heat haze from Debussy’s Faune? There is certainly an elusive quality to the score, as if heard through gauze. It’s good that the NHK champion Takemitsu, as he is heard all too rarely in European concert halls. 

Sol Gabetta, Paavo Järvi and the NHK Symphony Orchestra
© Belinda Lawley

Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor also needs strong advocates. It was never performed in the composer’s lifetime and has an elusive quality, difficult to pin down. Lyrical ideas flit past in an instant before the cello settles on a new idea. The concerto couldn’t have a finer champion than Sol Gabetta who played with great affection. The tone of her Matteo Goffriller is slender, never forced, enabling her to sing out the cantabile lines with much tenderness. She enjoyed great engagement with both conductor and orchestra, often “conducting” with her shoulders whilst not playing, spurring on the other string players in playful sport, especially in the rondo finale. Splendid too was her encore, a solo from Pēteris Vasks’ The Book of Cello which, as well as glissando slides and stratospheric high lines, requires the soloist to sing, which Gabetta did winsomely.