What better way is there to celebrate 150 years of good relations than with the music of the Strauss family? The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Week in Japan” just started, and its first concert at the Suntory Hall last night under Christian Thielemann consisted of a nearly all-Strauss programme, making it a delightful experience.

Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © Suntory Hall
Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Suntory Hall

First on the programme was Mozart’s Overture to Le nozze di Figaro, an appropriate selection for a commemorative and festive week, celebrating long years of friendship between Austria and Japan. The overture was brisk and natural, without any forced or overly exaggerated musical gestures but with only exemplary playing of the repertoire. The stage was full, and I thought that strings would overpower at first, but there was hardly any balance issues throughout the concert.

From that point, the Strausses took over... although not just the Viennese Strauss family. Richard Strauss’ Suite from Der Rosenkavalier is difficult for any orchestras due to its technical and musical complexity. Let me rephrase that – it is difficult for an orchestra to play it correctly. Densely packed chromatic chords and fast key changes are Richard’s signatures, and it’s always dazzling how he gets to where he is going, leading back to the tonic key somehow. The Vienna Philharmonic delivered every exotic detail showing the audience how it should be done, making it sound like the piece is actually easy.

Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © Suntory Hall
Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Suntory Hall

Next up was Johann Strauss Jr.’s Der Zigeunerbaron, a piece filled with joyous dance rhythms, mainly waltzes and polkas. Die Fledermaus may be somewhat more performed repertoire, but Johann’s unique “Viennese style” of lilting waltz (with a swift hesitation after the first beat then a slightly quicker two and three, as if swinging the rhythm a little) characterises both overtures. The sheer beauty of the music is depicted in the composer’s harmonic imagination, making it easy for listeners to picture the operatic sound contour (without an actual singer). Next was Josef Strauss’ Dynamiden Waltz, a more symphonic waltz often in minor keys. Using minor keys isn’t necessarily sad or gloomy, but more mysterious and attractive especially the way that Josef uses them; it is what marks him out from the other Strausses. The trained ear may also notice some of the similar thematic materials from this piece in Der Rosenkavalier, though it is not certain whether Richard Strauss did it on purpose.

Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra © Suntory Hall
Christian Thielemann conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
© Suntory Hall

The Csárdás from Ritter Pázmán followed. It was sometimes hard to believe that there were so many people on the stage, making a perfectly harmonious, unified, controlled sound. Maestro Thielemann’s exciting, energetic, and sometimes playful conducting was another gem to enjoy in this concert. Eduard Strauss’ Opern-Soirée and Mit Extrapost followed and the concert ended on a joyous note with Josef Strauss’ Sphärenklänge. Listening to these masterpieces one after the other was as if being presented with aural snapshots of the beautiful, musical city of Vienna, brought to the heart of Tokyo in the gorgeous Suntory Hall. It is always a rare treat to hear many Strausses in one concert, and it is only my regret that I can’t attend all their concerts while they are here in Japan.

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