“Is the Vienna Philharmonic coming in November or not?” This had been the talk of town amongst classical music fans in Japan since September, when its concert scene regained some semblance of normality. Here orchestras have resumed concert activities with audiences, and from mid-September the venues have been allowed full capacity audience. However, lacking from the scene are the foreign orchestras and artists, who have not been permitted entry due to strict travel restrictions. Still, we had all seen the Vienna Philharmonic show pioneering spirit at the Musikverein and the Salzburg Festival, so we waited in hope. And the news came in late on 30th October – a week before the planned tour – that the Japanese government had granted special permission for the orchestra’s tour with Valery Gergiev. True, it came down to a political decision, but it was also the fruit of the long-standing relationship between the orchestra and the Japanese host, Suntory Hall.

Valery Gergiev
© Suntory Hall

Remarkably, the tour programme remained as billed, and the orchestra arrived in full formation (100+ players). There was no visible social distancing on stage either. This all-Russian programme opened with a selection from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Gergiev prefers to compile his own selection rather than to rely on the existing suites, and on this occasion he chose four pieces: Montagues and Capulets, Juliet as a Young Girl, Masks and Romeo at Juliet’s Grave. Within minutes, he and the orchestra transported us into the world of Shakespearean drama, but from the opening foreboding discord to Romeo’s despair at the grave, it was also hard not to relate it to our current situation. Velvety strings and mellow brass sounded unmistakably Viennese rather than Russian, but they added extra elegance to the storytelling.

Denis Matsuev, Valery Gergiev and the Vienna Philharmonic
© Suntory Hall

Denis Matsuev was the soloist in Prokofiev’s colossal Second Piano Concerto. It is perfectly suited to his phenomenal technique and percussive power of his steely fingers, but he gave quite a nuanced and mature interpretation. There was a lyrical and even sensuous beauty in the opening theme, and crispness and emphasis of the grotesque in the Allegretto. The huge solo section had grandeur, but also a sense of spontaneous expressivity, as if the music was flowing freely from his fingers. The moto perpetuo second movement, taken at breakneck speed (was it his tempo or Gergiev’s?), was evidently a stroll in the park for him, and the ornamentations in the Intermezzo had playfulness. After a display of acrobatic technique in the final movement cadenza, he and the orchestra came together for the massive climax. Evidently though, Matsuev still had stamina to spare, so he decided to give us a cheeky, piano-bashing encore of In the Hall of the Mountain King from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. It wasn’t the most tasteful of encores, but it certainly lightened the mood!

Daniel Froschauer addresses the audience
© Suntory Hall

The concert concluded with Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony, preceded by an announcement from Daniel Froschauer, the orchestra’s chairman, that the performance would be dedicated to all who suffered from Covid-19, including musicians and singers who are silenced. The performance was a unique concoction of Gergiev’s Slavic whimsical baton (aka yakitori stick) and the noble playing of the Vienna Philharmonic, whose sounds are never edgy or acerbic, even in Russian repertoire. Gergiev’s whim won over in the first two movements, but in the third movement they really gelled as they built up to the (quasi) triumphant climax – probably the loudest orchestral sound Suntory Hall had witnessed in the last nine months. This was immediately followed by a truly heartfelt Adagio lamentoso finale. The intense strings, the solemn trombones and the mellow blend of the horns as the consoling violin theme was introduced were totally mesmerising and unforgettable. As the last chord died away, the auditorium was darkened for a poignant minute of silence before the eventual, rapturous applause from the full capacity audience.