I might be mistaken, but the Suntory Hall in Tokyo has been designed to the approval of Herbert von Karajan – the plaza in front of its entrance is accordingly called Karajan Platz. When you hear the first chord of any piece of music played by an orchestra in this auditorium, you cannot resist thinking of the legendary all-embracing full-toned sounds the Austrian conductor would conjure from the Berliner Philharmoniker.
It is curious to mention the Berliner Philharmoniker when you have just seen a concert with the Filarmonica della Scala, an orchestra the reputation of which is far from immaculate and which owes its share of respect from the audiences around the world by the good work of conductor Riccardo Muti (who is also visiting Tokyo with the Wiener Philharmoniker – I’ll report about that next week). For example, La Scala’s last season opening night featured Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and many a music lover was surprised to find the orchestra in such good shape. I have also heard that the orchestra has been “made up” for the event etc. But all I can say judging from this evening’s performance is that this is not necessarily true.
I have been an admirer of conductor Myung Whun Chung for a while. The repertoire around which his recording catalogue centers is not my favourite one, but I have heard some beautiful Wagner performances – particularly a Tristan und Isolde from Rome with Violeta Urmana – which are simply amazing. The Suntory Hall concert showed his skills in late Romantic music through the choice of Mahler’s First Symphony, but the program actually started with Mendelsohn’s Italian Symphony. Although the tempi were flowing, the accents were appropriate and the mood was rightly established, I am particularly not fond of this kind of smooth articulation that shadows a bit the boundaries between the previous note and the next – this has somewhat hurt the shapeliness of the saltarello, although some might claim that this kind of music should eschew cold polish.
In any case, this kind of passion for grand, absolutely flawless sound above any “petty” preocupation with clarity, which was the hallmark of Karajan’s late style, is something where Chung could find some inspiration for his Mahler. Although the Filarmonica della Scala doesn’t feature truly refulgent strings and noble-sounding brass, its concentration and discipline and its willingness and ability to draw on a wide tonal palette was more than praiseworthy – it was truly admirable. Some of the great orchestras in the world often produce immaculate performance dispatched with a hint of bureaucracy – but Chung and his musicians were really living every minute of the experience of playing Mahler’s First, and that is a treat for any audience. I would also add that the Chung made a virtue out of what Mahler’s detractors call a fault – what could have sounded inorganic finally produced a refreshing effect in the sense that Chung relished the transitions and seized the change of atmosphere in such a masterly way that sometimes even the very sound of the orchestra changed. He is also a master of climax building and handled the “false endings” that infuriate many a Mahler-hater to beautiful effects. In the last moments of this symphony, one could rightly feel that a big earthquake was coming – the hall was shaking with sound!
As a treat to an enthusiastic audience, we were served one of the most intelligent performances of Verdi’s overture to La Forza del Destino I have ever heard – what beautiful use of Rubato in the theme from Alvaro’s Le minaccie, i fieri accenti ! And, maybe to prove me wrong, Karajanesque impressionistic phrasing was set aside and amazingly accurate divisions produced.