Classical music fans in Tokyo are really spoilt for choices this autumn. In November, Suntory Hall alone hosts the Boston Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Royal Concertgebouw and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Admittedly, tickets are not cheap (top seats are in the region of \30,000+ =roughly £200+) but if you can afford it, people in Tokyo can enjoy the best international orchestras under one roof in one of the best halls in the world.

Andris Nelsons © Suntory Hall
Andris Nelsons
© Suntory Hall

For the Boston Symphony, this was their first tour to Japan with their popular Music Director Andris Nelsons already in his fourth season with them. I caught them on the final concert of their three-concert residency at Suntory Hall in an orchestral programme of Haydn’s “Drumroll” Symphony and Mahler’s First. In the recently refurbished Suntory Hall, looking remarkably fresh with a newly refitted wooden stage, the orchestra sounded elegant and sumptuous, especially its rich and warm string sound that stands comparison with the Vienna Philharmonic which I heard in the same hall twelve months ago.

This was especially prominent in the Haydn symphony which was performed in the grand symphonic manner, without any real nod towards period performance. Following the festive drum call, Nelsons led the orchestra gently through the harmonically intriguing introduction into the lively main section. Everything was played with elegance and poise: melodies were shaped beautifully and harmonic progressions duly emphasised, and all solos were finely played, especially the concertmaster’s solo in the second movement variation. Overall, Nelsons’ tempi were leisurely – perhaps too leisurely at times, and the third movement felt rather heavy-handed for a classical minuet. Also, there was a balance problem in the outer movements – with 11 first violins, the string section sometimes threatened to overpower the delicate flute and oboe solos. Ultimately I enjoyed the orchestra’s gorgeous playing but personally I prefer a more articulate performance with stronger emphasis on Haydn’s wit and invention.

The Boston Symphony plays Mahler 1 © Suntory Hall
The Boston Symphony plays Mahler 1
© Suntory Hall

After plush Haydn, I expected the temperature to rise sharply in Mahler’s First Symphony. Yet, here too, it felt more a measured and refined performance than an emotionally charged one. Nelsons conducted the work with his trademark enthusiasm and eloquent gestures, and the players were very responsive, playing with warmth, brilliance and attention to detail. Overall though, his emphasis seemed more to bring out the lyrical element of this symphony, thereby smoothing over some of Mahler’s extreme expressions.

The first movement began with a soft and restrained introduction, flowing organically into the first theme which Mahler recycled from his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. Nelsons brought out this youthful and lyrical aspect beautifully. He was obviously adhering to the dynamic markings and didn’t unleash the full force of the orchestra until the fff at the end of the development section. This slow build-up was impressive, although there could have been a little more tension in the development.

The Ländler second movement was performed in a sunny, pastoral atmosphere, with notable contributions from clarinets and horns. The waltz-like Trio section was one of my favourite moments in the performance, where he lovingly shaped the melody with sensitivity, conjuring up wistfulness and nostalgia but without sentimentality. The Frère Jacques tune in the third movement was led by solo double bass, solemn but lyrical, and passed round seamlessly between the instruments, accompanied by the ominous-sounding tam-tam. On the other hand, Nelsons underplayed the parody element in the kletzmer-like second theme – overall he didn’t really bring out any irony or grotesqueness in the work as some other conductors.

Finally, there were some emotional surges in the last movement, with thrilling playing from the powerful but never hard-edged brass and exciting ensemble from the virtuosic woodwind. The entire horn section stood up at the climax. Nelsons sustained the initial energetic tension to the end, even while manoeuvering through the reminiscing of earlier movements and the fugato. Ultimately, it was a refreshingly innocent interpretation of Mahler’s earliest symphony, supported by the lushness of the orchestra, although at times it felt too safe, a little too smooth.

After long, enthusiastic applause from the appreciative audience, Nelsons thanked them for their warm welcome throughout the tour and rewarded them with Beethoven’s Egmont overture as an encore.