Conductor Jonathan Nott is currently in the middle of his third season as Music Director of the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, and later this week they will embark on a five-city European Tour including Wrocław, Vienna and Dortmund. At Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, they performed one of the two programmes they are taking on tour – Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (with Isabelle Faust) and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. For European orchestras who go on tours regularly, it is quite common to take the current season’s programme on tour. However, Japanese orchestras very rarely tour (Tokyo Symphony’s last European tour was in 2001) so when they do, they tend to take tried and tested repertoire. Not so Jonathan Nott, who has chosen works which he hasn’t performed with them in previous seasons, but the programme kept both the musicians and the audience on the edge of their seats in more ways than one.

Jonathan Nott © Thomas Muller
Jonathan Nott
© Thomas Muller

One of the reasons for choosing Shostakovich’s Tenth was that the Tokyo Symphony gave the Japanese première in 1954, less than a year after its first performance in Leningrad. Nott’s approach could scarcely have been more different. The symphony was first performed after Stalin’s death and the most widely accepted interpretation of the work has been to see it as a depiction of the Stalin years in Russia. In this day and age, do we need to perform it programmatically? Nott's interpretation certainly felt more abstract than programmatic.

Nott paced the long arc of the first movement carefully from the opening low strings through the characteristic clarinet and flute themes culminating in the central climax, then unwinding through the two main themes to the two desolate piccolos at the end. He built the dark and intense sonority from the bottom up, and the woodwind solos – especially clarinet and bassoon – were articulate. Interestingly, both in the Shostakovich and the Beethoven, the violins were placed antiphonally with the cellos next to the first violins and the double basses in a single row at the back behind the winds, which worked better in Beethoven but less so in Shostakovich, where at times one wanted more of their combined power.

In the fast and furious Allegro, Nott drove the orchestra to its limits and at times even beyond. It was certainly exciting, but sometimes the players couldn’t quite keep up, especially the woodwind off-beat rhythms in the central section. Still, the orchestra captured the frenzied spirit of the movement and I am sure it will improve with each performance. If the second movement is a portrayal of Stalin, then the third movement waltz is about Shostakovich himself with the obsessive use of the D-S-C-H motif as well as the repeated horn call that spells out the name of his favourite pupil Elmira (unfortunately there were a couple of fluffs in this solo). The waltz sounded appropriately bitter and weary, especially at its return. In the finale, Nott stepped up a gear in a manic Allegro and whipped up the musicians relentlessly. It was obvious that he was going for the raw, physical effect over precision and perfection, and it felt as if he was challenging the orchestra to take risks and step outside their comfort zone.

In the first half, Isabelle Faust was the soloist in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major. One could say that Nott and Faust approached the work in a post-period style: i.e. using modern instruments (except for natural trumpets and historical timpani) but with little vibrato and emphasis on articulation. The work begins with a famously long orchestral introduction, which can sometimes feel routine, but Nott took a swift tempo and the music moved forward lightly and vibrantly and throughout the work he brought out various expressive details in the orchestra which I enjoyed very much. Faust avoided a grandiose or Romantic interpretation, performing with naturalness, flair and extraordinary technical control. Her tone is pure (although some may find it a bit too lean) and she uses vibrato sparingly; furthermore, she doesn’t try to project her sound to the back of the hall but draws the audience into her intimate world – the stillness she created in the second movement was spellbinding. Overall, the performance felt very conversational with Faust, Nott and the orchestra in active dialogue with each other. Responding to the enthusiastic audience, Faust gracefully danced her way through the encore – a movement from the French Baroque composer Guillemain’s Amusement for solo violin.