Paavo Jarvi © Yong Bin
Paavo Jarvi
© Yong Bin

When Paavo Järvi first spoke to us, back in 2016, he explained that his mission was to make his Japanese orchestra – the NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo – “less of a secret” in Europe and the United States. On its last two visits to London, our reviews acknowledged a “magnificently played” Mahler 6 (2017) and a “propulsive, driven” account of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (February 2020). The NHK strings were noted for their “dark, mahogany sound”. It’s fair to say that the indefatigable Järvi has achieved “mission accomplished”. 

There is something very central European about the “NHK sound”. The Tokyo public adores its core classics of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner, of Strauss and Mahler. As Järvi explains, the plaza in front of Tokyo’s magnificent Suntory Hall is called Herbert von Karajan Platz. “That says it all, pretty much.” So it’s no surprise that the orchestra itself excels in this repertoire, with a beautifully cultured, rounded string tone that recalls the sort of sound Karajan could draw from the Berliner Philharmoniker. 

It’s equally unsurprising that the Austro-Germanic classics form the backbone of the NHK’s repertoire for its 2020/21 Tokyo season. Mahler, Beethoven and Brahms, Hindemith, Wagner and Schumann are all well represented, and although audiences have to wait until the final concert of the season for some Bruckner, the unexpected is in store here. But there are other musical excursions ahead for the NHK, including Hungarian and Scandinavian fare, plus several journeys to Russia. 

The new season opens with an epic. At around 100 minutes, Mahler’s Third Symphony is the longest in the standard repertoire. It encompasses, literally, the entire world with movement titles like What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me, What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me and What the Angels Tell Me. It also includes a setting of the Midnight Song from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. There couldn’t be a grander way for Järvi to launch the season. Further Mahler arrives when Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Sixth Symphony in November. 

The NHK Symphony Orchestra at the Concertgebow, 2017 © Simon van Boxtel
The NHK Symphony Orchestra at the Concertgebow, 2017
© Simon van Boxtel

Rudolf Buchbinder, one of the world’s great Beethovenians, performs the Emperor Concerto, programmed alongside Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony, while the evergreen Herbert Blomstedt (currently 92 years young!) conducts Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, one of the glories of the Romantic repertoire. Marc Albrecht guides the NHK through orchestral excerpts from three Wagner operas, but the programme also includes the Japanese premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s Violin Concerto, performed by Veronika Eberle. 

Herbert Blomstedt © Martin U K Lengemann
Herbert Blomstedt
© Martin U K Lengemann

To close the season, Järvi programmes a Bruckner rarity – Die Nullte. He actually composed it in 1869 between his First and Second Symphonies, but in 1895 he declared that the work "gilt nicht" (does not count) and he refused to assign it a number. Bruckner lacked confidence in his compositions and was prey to friends’ suggestions or, indeed, dismissive comments. The fate of Die Nullte stems from an off-hand remark made by a conductor, Otto Dessoff, who questioned Bruckner about the first movement, “But where is the main theme?” The composer wrote across the front page of the score "annulliert" ("nullified") and replaced the original No. 2 numbering with a zero. Was Bruckner justified? Judge for yourselves next May!

Blomstedt masterminds the orchestra’s trip north for an intriguing concert. Before Sibelius’ hugely popular Fifth Symphony, he programmes the suite from Carl Nielsen’s incidental music for Aladdin, which includes the dazzling Marketplace in Isphahan movement where the orchestra is split into four groups, their themes piling up on top of each other. Then Nobuya Sugawa plays the rarely heard Saxophone Concerto by Swedish composer Lar-Erik Larsson. Finn Kaija Saariaho features later in the season when her Ciel d'hiver is conducted by her compatriot Hannu Lintu. 

Michael Tilson Thomas © New World Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas
© New World Symphony

There’s a Hungarian flavour to the start of the season. Järvi is at the helm for an all-Bartók programme ending with the Concerto for Orchestra, while Zoltán Kodály’s Concerto for Orchestra follows a week later, conducted by Tatsuya Shimono. 

Järvi has an affinity with Russian music – his native Estonia was, of course, under Soviet rule for many decades and, as a boy, he met Shostakovich. Two of Dmitri Dmitriyevich’s hardest hitting symphonies are conducted by Järvi next season: the fierce Fourth – a work so controversial that the composer kept it in a bottom drawer until after Stalin’s death – and the Thirteenth, which sets Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poems denouncing his Soviet masters. Järvi also conducts an all-Prokofiev programme which includes the Cello Concerto (Steven Isserlis) and the Fourth Symphony. Guest conductors Vladimir Fedoseyev and Alexander Vedernikov preside over suitably Russian repertoire, including suites from The Snow Maiden and The Sleeping Beauty, and Nikolai Medtner’s Third Piano Concerto, where Nikolai Lugansky is the soloist. 

Click here to view the full season listings. 


This article was sponsored by the NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo