The 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth straddles many 2019-20 classical seasons across the globe. The NHK Symphony Orchestra places their celebration right at the start of its season, opening with Fidelio. The story of a wife’s efforts to save her husband, a political prisoner, Beethoven’s only opera resonates on a deep level, impacting on audiences even in a concert performance. Leonard Bernstein once described the sublime Act 1 quartet "Mir ist so wunderbar" as “the first moment when we realize that we are dealing with no mere musical comedy, but with the mysterious inner world of Beethoven the Great”.

Paavo Järvi © Zdeněk Chrapek | Prague Spring
Paavo Järvi
© Zdeněk Chrapek | Prague Spring

Taking the role of Leonore – who disguises herself as a man to enact her rescue plan – is Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, who has sung it to great acclaim at the Salzburg Festival and The Metropolitan Opera. Florestan, her imprisoned husband, is Michael Schade and Franz-Josef Selig sings Rocco, the kindly gaoler. Conducting the NHK Symphony is its Chief Conductor, Paavo Järvi.

Järvi is leading his fifth season in Tokyo and is a firm favourite with Japanese audiences, his concerts ending in “uproarious and uninterrupted ovations”. He is conscious of the importance of Central European repertoire to Japanese audiences and programmes a lot of Bruckner, Brahms and Mahler. “The plaza before Suntory Hall is called Herbert von Karajan Platz,” he once told Bachtrack. “That says it all, pretty much.” The NHK strings have a warm, rounded tone with “no jagged edges” which suits this music perfectly. Mahler’s Second, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, Brahms’ First and Third and Bruckner’s Seventh all feature in the 2019-20 season, along with a lot of Richard Strauss, giving the orchestra plenty of opportunity to flex its Germanic muscles.

Bruckner’s Seventh, along with Rachmaninov’s Second, lies at the centre of the NHK’s spring tour programmes. Touring plays an important part in any orchestra’s season, a chance to share its strengths with a wider audience. As Järvi says, “A lot of people in Europe and America don't realise how good the NHK is and my goal is to make this orchestra less of a secret.” They certainly made a big impression on their last European tour in 2017, where their Mahler 6 was “magnificently played”. Next season’s seven-country tour starts in Järvi’s home capital, before heading to London, Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne, Dortmund and Berlin. Joining them will be Sol Gabetta (for Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto) and regular Järvi collaborator Khatia Buniatishvili (for Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto). Musical sparks are bound to fly.

Paavo Järvi © Kaupo Kikkas
Paavo Järvi
© Kaupo Kikkas

Järvi is also very strong in Russian repertoire (his Rachmaninov Second with the Philharmonia this spring was very special). Once the season has started with Fidelio, he switches to Tchaikovsky for a programme taken to four Japanese halls which explores the fiery realms of Dante’s Inferno in Francesca da Rimini along with the buoyant Second Symphony, subtitled the “Little Russian” after the Ukrainian folk songs it quotes.

Nordic composers are another string to Järvi’s bow. His recent recording of Sibelius symphonies (with the Orchestre de Paris) is wonderful, so make sure to hear him conduct the Sixth and Seventh with the NHK in September, along with Nielsen’s Flute Concerto, which features star flautist Emmanuel Pahud.

It’s not all Paavo Järvi though. The NHK attracts a top roster of internationally acclaimed conductors Honorary Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt, still bursting with energy in his nineties, returns for a programme featuring Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, Beethoven’s Eroicaa Blomstedt speciality – and Strauss’ giant tone poem Death and Transfiguration.

Not quite in the same veteran category, but “experienced”, come Christoph Eschenbach – with Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony and Leonard Slatkin who brings three very unusual programmes with everything from Copland to John Adams’ Saxophone Concerto to Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony and the First Symphony by Slatkin’s wfie, Cindy McTee, subtitled “Ballet for Orchestra”.

Among the “young guns” of the conducting world, don’t miss Pablo Heras-Casado or Tugan Sokhiev. Heras-Casado offers a glittering programme including Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol and Liszt’s First Piano Concerto (soloist Daniel Kharitonov), while Sokhiev has two concerts, one Russian and one French, with excerpts from La Damnation de Faust and Roméo et Juliette nods to the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’ death. Both conduct Tchaikovsky symphonies – the evocative “Winter Daydreams” for Heras-Casado, the fateful Fourth for Sokhiev.

Top vocal pick goes to Kristine Opolais, who sings Strauss’ Four Last Songs, conducted by Fabio Luisi in January, new territory for the soprano known for her passionate Puccini. Concerto-wise, Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for two timpanists sounds a lot of fun, while Janine Jansen teams up with Järvi to perform Britten’s Violin Concerto, a work they’ve played together many times before. From Beethoven to Britten, it’s a rich season from the NHK.

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Preview sponsored by NHK Symphony Orchestra