Main Hall
© Suntory Hall

Tokyo’s Suntory Hall not only hosts concerts by resident Japanese orchestras. It also invites top conductors and orchestras from across the globe to play in its fabled acoustic, described by the great maestro Herbert von Karajan as “a jewel box of sound”. For its 2018-19 season, Suntory Hall can boast a number of the world’s great orchestra/conductor partnerships – some well-established, some in their infancy.

Incredibly, the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra has only had two Chief Conductors since 1938 (when, in the Soviet era, it was known as the Leningrad Philharmonic). The indefatigable Evgeny Mravinsky was at the helm for 50 years and since 1988, Yuri Temirkanov has held the post. Temirkanov’s jovial demeanour is a far cry from Mravinsky’s severe persona, but musical standards remain high, particularly in Russian repertoire. In Tokyo, the St Petersburg Philharmonic brings two epic works rooted in Russian – and Soviet – soil. Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony – a Temirkanov speciality – was composed at Ivanovka, his in-laws’ estate. Following the terrible reception his First Symphony had received (partly due to the conductor, Glazunov, being drunk) Rachmaninov had much to prove, but responded with a work of enormous length, full of Romantic ardour, particularly the expansive Adagio which opens with one of the most beautiful clarinet solos in the orchestral repertoire. If Rachmaninov is old-school Romantic, Prokofiev embodied Soviet ideals in his score to Sergei Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible, which Temirkanov conducts the following evening. Expect plenty of decibels!

Mariss Jansons also spent much of his life in St Petersburg, as Mravinsky’s assistant at the Leningrad Philharmonic. He’s now part of another well established partnership, as Chief Conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, working hand in glove with them since 2003. Jansons is one of the world’s most revered conductors. He recently turned 75 and was awarded a Royal Philharmonic Society medal last autumn before being made an honorary member of the Berliner Philharmoniker in January. One of our reviewers in Berlin described Jansons’ qualities as “a selfless collaborator on the one hand, and a maestro whose main aim is always to serve the composer on the other”. The BRSO has a mature, distinguished sound, “burnished strings, muscular brass, silky woodwinds, all hanging on Jansons’ every baton flick”. At Suntory Hall, they play two programmes, both containing Liszt’s diabolical Piano Concerto no. 1 with Evgeny Kissin as soloist. You then take your pick of either Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben or Stravinsky’s ground-breaking – and earth-shattering – Rite of Spring as a partner.

Valery Gergiev
© Alexander Shapunov

The music director of Munich’s other big orchestra – the Munich Philharmonic – is a relative newcomer. Valery Gergiev has only been in post since 2015, but is one of the world’s busiest maestros, conducting a punishing schedule at the Mariinsky. Typically, Gergiev conducts three different programmes in four days which include three mighty symphonies from the Central European repertoire. His Mahler can be volatile and full of incident – no bad thing – and the First Symphony responds well to this treatment. Since joining the Munich Phil, Gergiev has conducted Bruckner regularly, a symphonist who requires a more expansive approach than Mahler. The Ninth – Bruckner’s final, unfinished symphony – will provide a challenge in playing a more patient game. Brahms struggled to compose a symphony. Fearing the shadow of Beethoven, he waited years, yet his First was still labelled Beethoven’s Tenth. There’s even a theme in the finale which sounds not unlike The Ode to Joy, but it’s a powerful, uplifting work, sure to go down well with the Suntory audience, which loves its core European classics. Yuja Wang joins the orchestra for piano concertos by Prokofiev and Brahms.

Further Brahms and Bruckner come from a new partnership. Alan Gilbert has yet to take up his post as chief conductor of Hamburg’s excellent NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, but he has been a previous principal guest conductor. Brahms’ Fourth – a masterpiece by any reckoning – features in their second Suntory programme. Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony forms the climax of the first NDR concert, a work whose première brought Bruckner great success, although that didn’t stop him tinkering with it afterwards. They are two symphonies which should suit the Elbphilharmonie’s muscular sound, as should Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto which the orchestra plays with French pianist Hélène Grimaud.

Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Michael Pöhn

Brahms and Bruckner seem like a Suntory double act next season! Franz Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra offer another pairing, this time is Brahms’ sunny Second and Bruckner’s Fifth. If Brahms’ First followed the line of Beethoven, his Second owes more to Schubert, its bright D major key adding an optimistic feel. The famed Viennese strings will surely relish Bruckner’s gorgeous lines in the Adagio while few orchestras can match the VPO’s brass sonorities. In a third programme, Welser-Möst programmes more Brahms – the Double Concerto for violin and cello – with a visit to the opera house, with orchestral excerpts – or “bleeding chunks” as the terminology goes – from Wagner’s cataclysmic conclusion to his Ring cycle, Götterdämmerung.

Another new partnership causing much excitement is Sir Simon Rattle’s new position as Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra. Last autumn, as part of its Bernstein 100 festival, they performed the Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety, inspired by W.H. Auden. The work is almost a piano concerto and Krystian Zimerman rejoins the LSO to perform it in Tokyo. At the Barbican concert, Zimerman was praised for “forensically dissecting the tissue of identity and belief with his scalpel-edged skill and finely balanced precision”, so this should be an unmissable performance. Rattle and the LSO also play Mahler’s Ninth – a work they’re shortly scheduled for in London – and a diverse programme of Ravel, Szymanowski and Sibelius.

If you enjoy music-making on a more intimate scale, piano recitals by Maurizio Pollini, Ivo Pogorelić (both with unannounced programmes) and Dame Mitsuko Uchida (all Schubert) should fit the bill.

Click here to see events in the Suntory Hall season. 


Article sponsored by Suntory Hall