One of the few upsides to the Covid-19 pandemic for the classical music world in Japan is that it has given opportunities to young home-grown talent, as orchestras have scrabbled to find replacements for the international conductors and soloists who have not been able to visit because of ongoing travel restrictions. This month, 28-year-old conductor Masaru Kumakura, prizewinner at the Tokyo International Competition for Conducting in 2018, replaced Paavo Järvi in two concerts of the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo. Kumakura was Järvi’s assistant at the NHKSO for many years so he is no stranger to the orchestra, but since the pandemic, he has been given several opportunities to stand on the concert podium.

Masaru Kumakura and the NHKSO
© NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo

At the weekend’s concerts, Kumakura conducted an all-Slavic programme he took over from Järvi, which consisted of Smetana, Szymanowski and Dvořák. The centrepiece was undoubtedly Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 1, a dark and sensuous masterpiece that pushes the violin to the upper limits of its register. To perform this work we were fortunate to have the presence of the remarkable Isabelle Faust in the country, replacing the originally billed Lisa Batiashvili. Faust, who had come to Japan in early January when the border was open for foreign artists (it closed again shortly after), had recently completed her recital tour with Alexander Melnikov, and agreed to stay on to perform with the NHKSO.

Isabelle Faust plays Szymanowski
© NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo

Faust gave an absolutely radiant performance of this fiendish concerto. Violinists who perform this piece tend to take an aggressive approach to compete with the rich texture of the orchestra and, as a consequence, the sound, especially in the highest register, tends to suffer. However, Faust maintained purity and clarity of tone throughout this single-movement concerto. Technically she is super calm and controlled, yet emotionally she is as gritty and passionate as anyone, like a white flame. She was not competing against the orchestra, but it felt she was being embraced by the orchestral sound. (Perhaps it helped that the orchestra used the version with reduced woodwinds). Faust was the image of a goddess leading the way through a deep, mysterious forest. It was interesting later to read in the programme notes that Szymanowski’s inspiration for this work was a poem by Tadeusz Miciński about a goddess. The orchestra played sensitively, never obscuring the soloist, and lovely solos by horn, clarinet, piano and harp added to the colourful sonority. Faust generously gave us an encore of the Malinconia from Ysaÿe’s Second Sonata.

Masaru Kumakura conducts the NHKSO
© NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo

The two Czech works that sandwiched the concerto were both sunny, rustic and pastoral, in total contrast to the dark and dense concerto. The three dances from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride provided a lively opener. Kumakura brought out the lightheartedness in the Polka, the distinctive hemiola rhythms of the Furiant, and the foot-tapping excitement in the Dance of the Comedians. The orchestra responded to his baton with eagerness, playing with a luscious sound, although in the rather boomy acoustics of the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre (especially at half capacity) the resonance of the strings overpowered the woodwind at times.

There was plenty of sunshine and warmth in Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony in the second half too. An attractive mixture of Brahmsian lyricism (second movement) and Slavic rustic charm (the Furiant Scherzo), Kumakura conducted the work with a smooth and steady hand. As in the Smetana, he elicited some gorgeously resonant playing from the strings, and there were excellent contributions from the principal flute, horns and the brass section. It was like basking in the autumn sunshine, but perhaps a little less sonority and more drive and articulation were called for. Still, in the final movement, he whipped up excitement especially in the coda, finishing with a flourish.