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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op.20 (17:22)
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40 (44:07)
NHK Symphony Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. 18-19 February 2015, Suntory Hall, Tokyo
RCA 88985391762 [61:29]

I so wanted to like this disc a little more than I did. The NHK Symphony Orchestra is one of the world’s great orchestras, its rich history dating back to 1926 when it was founded as the New Symphony Orchestra by Hidemaro Konoe. Its music-making, one of the most significant of any orchestra, is woven into the very fabric of Japanese classical music and wider Japanese culture. As Japan’s first professional symphony orchestra it has played a pivotal role in the introduction of western classical music into Japanese society, and no orchestra in Japan has a more Germanic sound than this one. As a purely orchestral instrument it is capable of staggering virtuosity and precision and its sound is as well blended as any of the great European or American orchestras. As with most Japanese orchestras, however, whether you can live with the somewhat over-prominent brass is a matter of taste.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the NHK came rather late to Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben first performing the work in 1960 under their then chief conductor Wilhelm Schüchter; since then, they have played the work under some of the greatest Strauss conductors of the age including Otmar Suitner, Horst Stein and, most frequently of all, Wolfgang Sawallisch. Paavo Järvi takes a somewhat brisk, less emotionally intense view of this work, more akin to the era of Toscanini and Mengelberg than the grand, heroic view of a Sinopoli or a Stein. Recordings with this orchestra by Suitner (on Japanese Sony) and by Stein (on a privately distributed NHKSO CD) are in no way erased by Järvi’s new recording, unfortunately.

But get the sound balance right (a little more heft in the bass), and there are many fabulous things to uncover here. One of the ironies of Ein Heldenleben is that whilst it is one of Strauss’ most classical works it is also one of his most radical and challenging because of its singular span which encompasses so many different changes of tempo and emotional reflection. Its heroic loftiness and serene expressiveness are a world apart and yet inextricably intertwined. Järvi is magnificently weighty at the very opening, a very promising beginning, and the sheer tonal splendour of the NHK strings and brass can carry this vision through convincingly enough. Those fantastically rich lower strings exude not just warmth but an incredible power (listen to them from 1’24 in Des Helden Widersacher). Although Fuminori Maro Shinozaki’s violin solos are generally technically immaculate and full of beautifully crafted individual touches, only the occasional left-hand shake at the beginning of his solo, and briefly elsewhere, betrays the fact this is a live performance.

I’m not sure Järvi is entirely convincing in the love music – it’s just a touch too detached for my taste. Symptomatic of this detachment are the very distant brass calls that precede the Battle, itself rather underplayed. One had perhaps expected the NHK to be as brutal as they were for Suitner in their fabulous subscription concert released on Sony, but they are relatively underpowered here. No one quite unleashes this scene with the fury of deafening artillery and orchestral instruments hacking each other to pieces in an orgy of oblivion as Takashi Asahina does with his superb Osaka Philharmonic in a live concert from 1972. Des Helden Friedensweke contains some of the most beautiful music Strauss wrote for the entire work, and whilst it recalls both Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration it remains uniquely opulent on its own terms. The Don Juan motif (horn five bars after 83, and violins and woodwind, seven bars after 83) is beautifully articulated by the NHK players but again Järvi feels a need to hold back. Having said that, the clarity these players are able to summon is quite breath-taking at times – how thrillingly audible are the harps, for example (a nod to the wonderful ear of Sinopoli in Strauss). I don’t think Järvi successfully meets the golden rule of a truly great Heldenleben in that this just feels and sounds episodic rather than truly symbiotic. There’s no question the NHK play magnificently for him (the horn solo at the work’s close is sublime) but ultimately this falls short of real greatness.

What doesn’t fall short, however, is the swaggering and brilliant opener for this disc, Don Juan. This is a performance full of vibrant colours, high octane playing and an all-embracing torrential sweep. It lacks absolutely nothing in ardour, passion or drive. The NHK players display a dazzling array of orchestral colours, but here Järvi’s willingness to hold back on the sentimentally (which can often sink a performance of this piece) pays rich dividends. On its own terms it’s an exhilarating, knock-out 17 minutes.

In summary, a sensational Don Juan and a Heldenleben that only occasionally reaches the heights one expected from this fabulous orchestra.

Marc Bridle



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