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Beethoven visits Japan: On Tour with the Vienna Academy Orchestra (Part 4)

The sun rises over the Vienna Academy Orchestra’s Day Four in Tokyo, a beautiful day and the day of the first concert at Musashino Hall. But there’s plenty of time until then to discover a bit of Tokyo. Little groups set out to get lost in the city; some new to the place and others veterans already from previous trips. Daring the Tokyo commuter rail network – what with nine rail and two metro companies some of which seem to require different tickets, some of which seem to require transfer tickets, and a number of stations that serve several millions of passengers each day – can be a bit daunting.

I opt to visit the Meiji Shrine, more on random instinct than for any particular reason. It was described to be somber, which appeals, and so it was, alas in vast parts covered for restauration. There’s a garden within the park, with a tea house which the emperor to whom the shrine is dedicated enjoyed, with a view of a little pond with lots of carp and a field of lilies that must be spectacular when they are in bloom.

The wooden tori gates are the largest of their kind and appeal to my sense of architectural stereotype. Despite its popularity with tourists and Japanese alike, the park—and especially the garden—are a lovely spot of calm green in Tokyo… not that I particularly yearn for that, since I haven’t even remotely experienced the hum and buzz of hyper-urban Tokyo yet.

I also head to another more personally relevant shrine of mine which happens to be just south of Yoyogi Park in the Shibuya district. I walk through the quainter, hillier part of Shibuya just below the Yoyogi 1964 Olympic National Gymnasium, I turn an inconspicuous corner, and there it is, rising high above me: Tower Records! As a veteran of Tower Records, albeit the bankrupt American branch, not the Japanese survivor, and an inveterate CD collector, this is a Mecca… a refuge… a treasure island. There’s still one, vast floor entirely devoted to classical music and I barely know where to start. Why not “B” like Beethoven. And look at that, right at eye level, replete with mini-review, sits highlighted one of the Beethoven recordings of the Vienna Academy Orchestra (OWA)! It’s the fresh-off-the-presses Ninth, but unfortunately I can’t read what the employee’s recommendation says.

There are lots of other goodies to be had at Tower, too, especially box sets of recordings long out of print in Europe, specially made for the Japanese market which seems not to know the idea of deletion. Haitink’s unfinished Berlin Mahler cycle. Ingrid Haebler’s second Mozart Piano Sonata cycle. Sawallisch’s Bruckner—all that which he got to record before his untimely death. And many Japanese composers either entirely unknown to me, or only by name. The only think I cannot find are the sets—be it Beethoven, Bruckner, or Sibelius—of the classic Japanese conductors of the last generation, Takashi Asahina and Akeo Watanabe – the “Karl Böhm” of Japan, as I am told.

I also do find another whole wall and listening station decked out with all the Beethoven recordings of the OWA and Martin Haselböck. The only thing that’s missing is a poster announcing the concerts at Musashino Hall that start tonight… though it might be argued that that didn’t matter, since they are sold out, anyway. But it would seem that the orchestra has already made its mark on the town, before a note has been played Eventually I tear myself away and without knowing that it is the busiest intersection and famous for it, I cross PLAZA and am amazed at the spectacle—and urban ballet, almost—of all these people starting to cross the street in six directions (including diagonally) at once. From Shibuya station it’s back to the comparatively sleepy Musashino and its bourgeois charm.

A few Gyozas at the newfound favorite dive to strengthen myself for the concert and off to Musashino Hall for symphonies Six and Seven… the start to the first historically informed Beethoven Symphony cycle in Japan if not all of Asia. A historic, historicist event!

The hall itself has a distinct new car smell – so much that I realize I’m in the right place when I walk by the unfamiliar side entrance after dark. It makes sense when I hear that the community center has just been renovated and that this was the grand re-opening of the hall… and not a shabby re-opening that is, with a complete Beethoven cycle.

It looks like an outsized high school multi-purpose auditorium and seats 1252. Not a bad looking hall… just a little… different. The audience is dressed more casually than I had assumed, which suits me just fine. Whether correct or not, to me that suggests that they might be there for the music, rather than the event and its prestige. Decorum is nice, but stale traditions are not.

The acoustics on 12th row of the raked auditorium seating is good; certainly more effective in transmitting the orchestra’s efforts, than Izumi Hall which, on paper and judging by its looks, should have been the superior sounding place. Acoustics is a strange science—or rather: no science at all, but advanced guessing with a dash of luck. The acoustic is also more effective in the sense that it generously covered some off moments and ensemble issues whereas Izumi hall had been on the exposing side. In the Sixth symphony, the horns behave notably well; the third movement is particularly energetic.

The Seventh Symphony’s slow opening strikes me as a little slack. If that were tightened, I think it could be more effective in ushering the ears along and the contrast to the Vivace would be just as great, even if the latter was a touch less furious. The transition between the two parts consists of a few staggered notes traded between the flutes and oboes together and the violins: little hesitations, that ought to unleash the awesome forward momentum of the Vivace, rather than being a mere interruption of the flow. Like an expanded, dramatic comma in a narration, not fumbling for the shopping list between the dairy isle and the what-is-it-that-I-wanted-again… ah, grapes![1] Just a tiny moment that struck me, but in any case wiped away by said furious Vivace which I swear had some Japanese audience-members utter impressed chuckles. This ain’t your Karl Böhm Beethoven! (Not that there’s anything wrong with. Although, yes, actually… there is. Different topic, though.)

If Viennese Beethoven cycles in Asia seem to ring a bell, in Shanghai, the Vienna Symphony just played the complete Beethoven cycle of nine symphonies, under Philippe Jordan. On the occasion, Jordan commented—as reported on China-Daily—somewhere along the lines of the famous Vienna sound of the strings being “warm and sweet, with lots of vibrato playing that makes it sugary, with gliding notes and portamenti” and that playing the Beethoven symphonies with the special Vienna sound is less aggressive, even when sometimes Beethoven requires that: “It is always a beautiful sound”. The OWA is also not your Philippe Jordan’s Beethoven. And if aggressiveness is required by Beethoven, they are the first to give Beethoven his dues. I like the OWA’s rough-n-ready ways; the VSO’s homogenized brawn rather less in Beethoven, although it is decidedly good to have both and then some other varieties, still.

The third and to some extent the fourth movement of the Seventh Symphony, to get back to Musashino Hall, too, were fiery stuff, at the edge and sometimes beyond, even if it sounds nothing like in the original performance spaces, which is of course the conceit of the ReSound Project and where I find it affects the listener most profoundly. A Japanese Wine bar (again: recognizable as such only on the foreigner’s second look) reveals a very decent Japanese white wine, from the Kerner varietal. Later I am told that the specialty of Japanese white wine, unlike French et al., is that it goes with soy sauce, making it a commendable partner of Sashimi and Oysters. An assertion that would need to be put to the test, it seems. More pictures below.

[1] On re-listening to how Rafael Kubelik, whom I’d off-handedly consider among my favorites of the old guard, does this movement with the Vienna Philharmonic (from his nine-orchestra international cycle) I was shocked to notice how lame that particular transition—indeed the whole first movement—now sounds, that I’ve been spoiled by the HIPsters. The last stagger isn’t just fumbling for the shopping list with Kubelik (putting that into perspective), but downright trotting outside the store in confusion, before entering hoping to remember why we went to the store in the first place. 


Anonymous said...

What I would look if I would have a chance to return to Tower Records are the recordings that are re-issued by the store label itself. A few years ago when I visited there were a number of recordings re-issued on the Tower Records label on license from DG, Decca, Philips - the Universal family. Many of them have never been available otherwise. For example some of the mono recordings of the great and greatly underrated Paul Paray.

I am curious if the Tower Records label still exists and what are they re-issuing now.

In Tokyo I would also visit the Disk Union stores, especially the Shinjuku branch - a second hand CD paradise.

jfl said...

The Tower Records label still is very busy re-issuing out of print Universal titles and putting them into lovely, shelf-space saving boxes. Too bad I didn't know about the Disk Union stores... but perhaps I'll get back one day to browse there.