Is Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor an overdone violin repertoire, which is now only heard during conservatory auditions? Nikolaj Znaider certainly made it sound much more engaging than that and, along with the impressive NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo’s accompaniment under the baton of the passionate Fabio Luisi, the concerto came to life with refreshing feeling.

Nikolai Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolai Znaider
© Lars Gundersen
Tonight’s concert at the NHK Hall began with Gottfried von Einem’s Cappriccio, Op.2. The work may have been unfamiliar to the general audience, but it did not seem so new or inexperienced to the performers. Maestro’s Luisi’s clear, big, but simple gestures helped the audience to understand how the piece was flowing, and though the volume contrast seemed lacking at times, the piece was convincingly delivered.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is one of the first major concertos that serious young players and violin fanatics would pursue, even though it is arguably not that much easier than other canonic violin concertos. It is familiar repertoire to classically trained and amateur ears, and for that reason, it is difficult to deliver the beauty of the masterpiece at an impressive level; however, through their phenomenal performance of the concerto, Znaider and Luisi re-stated the obvious truth of art music that “it is all about the details.”

Znaider is not yet widely known in Japan, however, his concerto tonight may just have opened a door to fame here. His simple, calm, but somehow highly engaging tone in the first page of the concerto matched perfectly to such well-controlled volume of the orchestra in the background. It is an absolutely thrilling moment when the balance between the solo and the orchestra is just right. The passion of the first movement meets its peak at the cadenza, a place where even experienced performers sometimes take excessive amount of freedom. Znaider, however, performed the section rather simply, neither being overly romantic nor too mechanical. It was a fine line between performing what is written on the music, and interpreting only within the reasonable style of the performer: what art music is about. The subtle details in the first movement were tremendous: varied timings of finger shifting into important notes, different speeds and widths of vibrato, several noticeable dynamic differences within a phrase, perfect timings of tempo changes and rubatos with the orchestra. Even the body movements of the solo and the maestro were quite tasteful: at times, it was as if the two were doing choreographed moves to the music. Such details were carried throughout the segue second and third movements. Znaider gave an encore, Bach’s Sarabande in D minor, in which one could again hear all the delicate details in the controlled vibratos and volume, expression and techniques. After such a masterpiece, it took us a few minutes to recover our breath.

After a brief interval, Mahler’s Symphony no.1 was unveiled, bringing the sounds of spring, which was especially suitable as it is the season of cherry blossom in Japan. Luisi, again with his clear and simple but vigorous gestures, established a variety of colour and articulation. The multitude of tempo changes in the first movement (and in other following movements) sometimes seemed too calculated or over-anticipated, leaving ambiguity as to whether it was planned or just wasn’t together, but regardless, the focused performance successfully delivered the dispatched climactic points in all movements. The woodwind and brass, meticulous in showing the details and various volume controls, were matched well with the lovely string tone. However, in several places, the strings seemed slightly overpowered by the woodwind and brass. This seems to be a problem for many orchestras when they perform Mahler’s symphonic works; NHKSO could have added more string players, especially in the upper voices, to create a more powerful string presence. Though not as impressive as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the impeccable intonation and ensemble skills of the bass section solo at the beginning of the third movement and the standing of the horn section in the fourth movement added to the countless highlights of the symphony. There was no encore, in spite of countless callbacks of the maestro to the stage from the audience.

Tonight was NHKSO’s 1,858th subscription concert. It will be exciting to see what more this orchestra can and will do in the upcoming performances.