The Kirishima International Musical Festival was founded in 1980 by initiative of the late German violinist Gerhard Brosse (concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra until 1975) to help young Japanese musicians who could not travel abroad to have the experience of learning from first-rate musicians. There is a series of concerts related to the students and the musicians responsible for the masterclasses – the orchestra items turning around the Festival orchestra, which involves musicians from orchestras such as the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Deutsche Oper, the Concertgebouw and the Metropolitan Opera, but mainly from Japanese orchestras: New Japan Philharmonic, Osaka Philharmonic, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Yomiuri Nippon Orchestra etc.
Because of the Wagner Jubilee, this year concert’s main item was Die Walküre’s 1st Act, preceded by Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1. The concert was repeated in a sold-out evening in the Tokyo Opera City, probably the less glamorous Walküre in concert version in Tokyo this year. However, the famous conductors who’ll be here next month will have to run for their money if they want to match this one.
First of all, I was truly surprised by the Festival orchestra. In the Beethoven symphony, conductor Tatsuya Shimono opted for a daring Böhm-meets-Barenboim approach, demanding both clarity and fulness of sound from his orchestra in very reasonable tempi made to seem more energetic by incisive accents and precise beat. The orchestra responded with unusual animation for a Japanese phalanx. The sound was rich, bright and flexible, with exemplary contribution from brass and violins.
However, Maestro Shimono proved to be a most commendable Wagnerian after the intermission. To understand this concert, a long considerations about the soloists (from the Mariinsky Theater) must be made. First of all, the reason why I’ve ended up in this concert is related to the tenor. A very good friend (deceased a while ago) had the habit of saying, after he had seen the video of Boris Godunov from the Kirov Theatre, that Alexei Steblianko should consider a Wagnerian career. When I saw Mr. Steblianko’s name on the program, I thought I owed Fernando to check if his theory was right. Actually, at 63, it is rather late for this Russian tenor to become a Wagnerian – and one can hear that. Not in his voice – which is pretty good shape – but by the fact that he has very little experience in this repertoire. His German is heavily accented, what he sings is not always what Wagner wrote, he indulges in parlando, falsetto and scooping effects some Russian tenors are fond of and he has very poor discipline with breath support. But his voice was made for Wagner. His tenor is naturally voluminous, the low register is impressively focused and natural and, when he properly supports his high high notes, they sound beefy and dark in a curiously non-baritonal way. Although he was not truly comfortable in SIegmund’s show-off moments (Wälse! Wälse! and Nothung! Nothung! particularly), one would often be caught in surprise with some uniquely big and powerful notes.
Yekaterina Shimanovitch, on the other hand, has decent German, knows Wagnerian style and blasts some awesome firm and huge top notes that one probably could hear out in Seoul. Her fruity soprano has a touch of Anna-Tomowa-Sintow mid-range, but lacks space in the bottom. She too has a naturally big voice and can handle conversational passage without any effort – only to knock you out in the first dramatic high note when you least expect. She is not expressive or insightful in any particular way, but she is far from unsubtle. Well, she had a bad start, unintentionally singing her first lines in higher pitches than in the score, but after having found the right notes, she proved to be the best soloist this evening. Bass Pavel Shmulevitch has a tipically Russian voice – sometimes verging on throatiness – and knows his text better than the higher-voiced singers this evening. However, he is not spontaneous in his enunciation.
As you can see, the conductor had to handle a tenor who did not really know his part, a soprano who had to calm down after starting on the wrong foot and a bass who slowed down the pace whenever he sang. Does that sounds promising to you? Well, I was fearing for the worst, but then I realized that Shimono had everything under complete control. He led his orchestra, cued his singers incessantly, infused energy in the proceedings and offered Wagner as full-toned and classically balanced as his Beethoven. He and his musicians – his spalla has a vast experience in this opera with Daniel Barenboim and one could see his incentive for his fellow violinists to go beyond safety net – offered absolute transparency. Even in the difficult passagework in the violins after Winterstürme until the end of the act, one could perfectly hear everything as one sometimes doesn’t with famous orchestras. But the best of all, was the fact that the conductor knew he had some big voices that could really stand an orchestral fortissimo. I had goosebumps in Du bist der Lenz – the hall exploding with orchestral sound under Shimanovich’s steely, bright top notes. Some may say I had low expectations – hence the good surprise. Maybe that’s right, but the fact is – all drawbacks considered, I really had fun this evening.