If we must have a curtain-raiser for Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, of all works, then this most eminent of Japanese orchestras chose well. Their countryman Toru Takemitsu is still the best known of Asian classical composers to have made a name in the West. He also effectively blended eastern and western influences long before the word ‘fusion’ was used to describe both music and cuisine. His Requiem for Strings, once famous if now faded, had the merit of showcasing the superb body of strings on which the NHK Symphony Orchestra Tokyo’s excellence is founded, at least for the ten minutes of the piece before they were joined by a horde of brass, wind and percussion players for the Mahler. In tone, tuning and dexterity the string band is an outstanding group, and the balance achieved by their Chief Conductor Paavo Järvi across the various intricate lines ensured that Takemitsu’s rich harmony never became clotted. Thus the Requiem’s Bergian expressionism set the scene perfectly for the work Berg himself called “the only Sixth, despite the Pastoral”.
First, the basics for any performance of this work. Yes, the opening march tempo was a persuasive middling speed between an inexorable doomed trudge and an over-lively stepping out. Yes, those superb strings soared and sang in ‘Alma’s theme’. Yes, the first movement coda surged exultantly, the eight horns braying as one, with golden tone.
The scherzo came second (quite right too, but don’t write in) as in Mahler’s first published score. And when the entrance notices said the concert was ‘without interval’ they meant it. Only when Jarvi left the platform (quite briefly) after the Takemitsu was there a real pause. The first and second movements, and then the third (Andante) and fourth, were effectively joined as pairs, with a short pause only between second and third movements. This threw a little extra weight onto the second half the symphony (as it became), and to its advantage. Mahler’s musical literalism (stumbling toddlers, cowbells, hammer blows) was relished without embarrassment or irony. (Right again – these references were significant for Mahler. “A Symphony must contain the world” he told Sibelius, and these sights and sounds were part of his world).
Above all the work was magnificently played. It was not only the heaving aloft of a giant mallet for the hammer blows (two, not three) that provided a sense of theatre, of performing. Horns really did get those bells in the air when the score directs it, as did the clarinets, throwing back their heads such that the bell was above the players’ foreheads. Solo after solo in wind and brass caught the ear and the imagination, so that it took quite a while at the end for Järvi to invite each principal to take a bow, and duly receive a roar of gratitude. The NHK SO is visiting Vienna, Berlin and Amsterdam on this tour – but even in those venues they will have nothing to learn about playing Mahler.
Järvi’s interpretative view is a fairly central contemporary one, powerful and highly effective. There were some well-judged expressive ritardandi at structural junction points, especially helpful to telegraph the route through the long finale, but generally he played it pretty straight. Measured on the thermometer of emotional temperature (‘the Boulez to Bernstein’ scale), he is more in the cool zone perhaps, if not right at the modernist objectivity end. His Andante was far too warm for that, if never entirely heart on sleeve. But should not conductors sometimes recall Alma’s observations? “None of his works moved him so deeply at its first hearing as this… When it was over he walked up and down in the artist’s room, sobbing, wringing his hands, unable to control himself.” The Zeitgeist is against much overt emotionalism in Mahler performance, and one has to be grateful to have heard a Mahler Six of such skill and integrity as this. But if Järvi wished ever to reach towards the upper regions of that emotional scale where the heat rises, even unto incandescence, he should go for it one evening – these terrific players could follow him alright. And we just might have a very great performance of this incomparable symphony, not just a very good one.