A week in Tokyo: Day 4

James JollyThu 18th February 2010
A week in JapanA week in Japan

Tower Records and the NHK Symphony Orchestra at Suntory Hall

Tokyo has eight symphony orchestras, of which the NHK Symphony
Orchestra (founded in 1926) is one of the most prestigious – and
wealthiest, supported by the broadcaster, NHK, and by private/corporate
donors. It gives concerts in NHK Hall and also at Suntory Hall, a
glamorous and rather beautiful venue in the centre of the city which
seats about 2000. The audience tends to be smarter, older and the
programming somewhat conservative.

Outside Suntory Hall, which opened in 1986, is a square name Herbert
von Karajan Platz: the Austrian conductor was a great supporter of and
advisor to the hall (and, not surprisingly, the “vineyard” layout of
the seating around the stage is not unlike the interior of Karajan’s
Philharmonie, though unlike the Berlin hall you still sense the depth
of the hall in a traditional shoe-box way). Concerts start at 7pm, take
a 15-minute interval and are over by 8.45pm or so – at which point a
large proportion of the audience charges for the door for the
inevitable epic journey home, often to the farthest reaches of this
enormous city of 13 million.

The NHK Symphony Orchestra’s line-up of “titled” conductors is
impressive: Dutoit, Previn, Blomstedt, Ashkenazy, Sawallisch, Toyama
and Otaka, and when guest conductors are invited they tend to come for
about 12 days giving three pairs of concerts (two at NHK Hall, one in
Suntory). I caught the central programme which found Semyon Bychkov
conducting Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto (with Alexei Volodin)
and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.

The string sound of the NHKSO is gorgeous: fine-grained, smooth and
with a deep autumnal glow – at times it was so finally woven and dense
that it threatened to overwhelm the piano, though the Hall has a lovely
acoustic with an almost perfect decay. The Rachmaninov played to the
ensemble’s strengths with its surging melodies and long string lines.
This was a civilised, nicely presented performance, though it certainly
wasn’t a barn-stormer. I don’t know Volodin’s playing so I'm not sure
if he was toning things down, or whether he too favoured a more poetic
approach. My guess, judging by the Tchaikovsky – which does
call for more obvious red-bloodedness – is that he was matching the
cool of his partners. The brass and winds were a little lacking in
individuality and I’d have liked a little more sense of the little
snippets of melody being passed from player rather than being
mere played. And a sense of danger, too, should surely accompany the
return of the Fate theme throughout the first movement. The third
movement Scherzo was superbly done, the precision and delicacy of the pizzicato
playing very impressive. And in the finale you could sense Bychkov
trying to ramp up the adrenalin which he succeeded in – but just for
the last few pages!

I wonder whether it’s a question of temperament: this is music that
requires heart-on-sleeve emotion and maybe the cool of these players –
it’s interesting that the strings rarely move, even at the most
trenchant moments – doesn’t engage fully with such in-your-face music.
I’d love to hear them play Sibelius or Nielsen…or even some French
fare!

Earlier in day, it was the inevitable (and much-awaited) trip to
Tower Records in Shibuya, an area of Tokyo that is just like the photos
– thousands of people crossing the road, gigawatts of neon lighting,
and noise! The door to Tower – which carries the now sadly redundant
moniker “It’s a global thing” – was mobbed by teenage girls desperately
snapping photos on their mobiles of pictures (!) of a Korean boy-band,
the latest pop sensation here. The Classical department is five floors
up and by the time you step off the escalator the sounds of Korea’s
answer to JLS has been replaced by Masaaki Suzuki’s latest Bach album,
and the mood was definitely conductive to some serious damage to the
credit-card.

I chatted to the Classical buyer who said that sales were, not
surprisingly, given the recession, down a little, but he was justly
proud of the historic recordings section (entitled Collectors) and it
seems to be quite the focal point of the floor (which is about the size
that HMV’s Bond Street branch used to be). Prices range from ¥1000
(approx £7) for a single CD (a reissue of an RCA Takemitsu album on
Tower's own reissue imprint – well-worth looking out for as they're
selected by the store's clearly knowledgeable buyers) to about ¥2500
(about £17.50) for more recherché fare. There are a number of
fascinating local reissue labels including Green Door, DIW and Venezia
(Russian but not available at home). A three-disc set of Lev Oborin on
Venezia was a real bargain at ¥1590. Veteran performers are clearly
much appreciated here, and there are evidently some extremely
discerning collectors – the idea of carrying a shopping basket in a
record store is most impressive – and I saw a couple of people with
armfuls of historic sets.

Visiting artists’ discs are prominently featured and, not
surprisingly, sell well, and many take part in appearances at the
store. The DG signing, pianist Alice Sara Ott, had recently been there
and had apparently sold huge numbers of discs. Crossover, mercifully,
seems to be kept at arm’s bay, though there were a couple of displays
that shift discs in bulk – one was of music associated with Japan’s
leading ice-skater Daisuke Takahashi (currently doing well at the
Winter Olympics), and another is Nodame Cantabile.

Nodame Cantabile is something of a multi-media runaway
success. It tells the story – artistic and emotional – of a hugely
talented (fictional) Japanese pianist Shinichi Chiaki, son of a famous
pianist, multi-lingual, tall, handsome, raised in Europe but stuck in
Japan because of his fear of flying and ships (!) – and clearly with a
temper and a half! His goal, though, is to be a world-famous conductor
and work with the best orchestras “in Europe”. The object of his
affections is a fellow pianist called Megumi “Nodame” Noda.

It started life as an manga (cartoon) book, then spawned a series of animé
(animated cartoon) shows and also a live-action TV series. And the CDs
and video games are flying off the shelves. I’ve read one volume of the
manga books (quite difficult mastering the reading of a book
seemingly backwards), though from the clip of the TV drama I've seen,
Shinicki Chiaki’s conducting style makes Leonard Bernstein’s seem
positively demure! And it’s selling proper classical music, so all
power to its elbow!

(As I write this I’ve learnt of the death of one of Gramophone’s
contributors, Patrick O’Connor, a wonderful writer and a man of immense
and eclectic tastes in so many different fields of art. I’m going to
write a few words about him for the main website, but in his honour,
I’ve gone to eMusic and downloaded a quintet of “essential” Joséphine
Baker songs – delivered with her gorgeous American-French and,
alternately, Frenchified-American accent! Watching the snow fall over
Tokyo as she sings in the background seems unbearably poignant. I hope
she’s waiting for him, sequined from head to toe, with a large and
perfect martini in a beautiful Baccarat glass…)

James Jolly

James Jolly is Gramophone's Editor-in-Chief. His blogs explore live and recorded music, as well as downloading and digital delivery.

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