Under the direction of Herbert Blomstedt, the Bamberger Symphoniker and Akiko Suwanai successfully delivered Beethoven at Suntory Hall. The first half of the concert was Beethoven's one and only Violin Concerto, and the second half his well-known Fifth Symphony.

Akiko Suwanai © Takaki Kumada
Akiko Suwanai
© Takaki Kumada

Ms Akiko Suwanai was the first Japanese violinist (and the youngest) to win the International Tchaikovsky Violin Competition in 1990, and she has been consistently gaining international fame as a violinist. Her virtuosic but such well-controlled technical and musical delivery of arguably one of the most challenging and beautiful violin masterpieces was simply, ecstatic. The curious and engaging opening four notes of the timpani set the tone for the movement, and the near three-minute long orchestral opening until the solo violin entrance already showed the excellence of the Symphoniker.

On top of the numerous technical challenges that Beethoven and music from his era demand for string instruments (needless to mention other instruments), many would agree that the difficulty in delivering Beethoven's music is in intonation, in solo playing and with ensemble. This seemed not so relevant to Ms Suwanai and the Symphoniker as they performed with such clear and impeccable intonation throughout the entire piece that it was only a pleasurable experience to listen. The warm tone of the orchestra matched well with the solo violinist’s equally warm but exceptionally lush sound; and the balance with the solo and the ensemble was ideal. Solo violin was always heard, and the orchestra’s dynamic expressions were never overdone.

When one thought it could not get any better, Ms Suwanai’s first movement cadenza and a shorter one in the last movement, took the audience further in enjoying Beethoven’s music. Her long cadenza was virtuosic and captivating; and her convincing musical expression through clarity of intonation, unwavering rhythmic integrity, and extremely accomplished violinistic skills was breathtaking. With knowing or without knowing that it is traditionally unconventional to applaud between movements in Japan, the audience responded immediately by applause after the first movement was over. The slow second movement and the third movement finale never ceased in maintaining the musicality expressed in the first movement. Nearly fifty minutes long, the concerto did not seem so lengthy, and it is only unfortunate that there was no encore from the soloist though it is completely understandable after such an arduous masterpiece. 

The second half of the concert was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The tempo created by the famous opening four-note theme, perhaps the linking element to the Violin Concerto’s opening four-note timpani notes, seemed a bit on the rushed side, but the movement was not technically or musically compromised due to tempo. Rather, it felt persuasive and made the movement even more lavish than it already is.  The playing through the four movements was energetic and engaging, making it hard to believe that the maestro is reaching ninety years of age next year. He did not use a baton and, possibly due to his age, his conducting motions were usually simple and even minimalistic, though continuously producing the maximized response from the ensemble. His gestures were never overdone, but the music from this maestro and his ensemble showed their deep attachment and understanding of Beethoven’s music. The Symphoniker ended the night by performing Beethoven’s Egmont Overture as an encore. The superlative performance of all-Beethoven program tonight was just exquisite.