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Yasushi AKUTAGAWA (1925-1989)
Rapsodia (1971) [15'04]; Ellora Symphony (1958) [17'24]; Trinita sinfonica (1948) [21'41].
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa.
rec. Lower Hutt Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 29-31 January 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.555975 [54:09]

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An interesting - sometimes arresting - disc of music of a composer new to me.

Akutagawa was an active and influential composer, a conductor and director of JASRAC (the Japanese copyright collection service, similar to our MCPS/PRS Alliance). His works are strongly influenced by Stravinsky and his teacher Akira Ifukube. Ifukube, like Stravinsky, had a penchant for ostinati that evidently rubbed off on the young Akutagawa. He visited the Soviet Union, and brought Shostakovich's Symphony No. 4 to Japan for the first time.

An exciting mix, then. Fellow countryman Takuo Yuasa clearly thinks so, as well. Yuasa conducted and very well, too Peter Donohoe's disc of Rawsthorne piano concertos on Naxos. See my review.

The Rapsodia boasts an amazingly arresting opening, brass glissing away before embarking on a Bartók-slanted tribute to Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice - a link I noted before I read Morihide Katayama's excellent introduction to Akutagawa in the accompanying booklet. The Stravinsky influence here is more of the early Rimsky-Korsakov pupil than that of the later works. Certainly the oriental within the occidental is evident here; the occidental to the fore, by the way. Those ostinati I mentioned a little earlier generate a fair head of steam, especially when as cleanly performed as here.

The Ellora Symphony takes its inspiration from a town in the Deccan in India that boasts a temple made up of a sequence of rock caves. The composer was inspired by the seemingly infinite and chaotic layout of the caves and also by the explicit sexual content of some of the cave decorations. Akutagawa mirrors the labyrinthine caves in creating music that steps away from the 'directional movement towards climaxes' paradigm. Instead it celebrates the infinite crossing of masculine and feminine where 'life is renewed forever' - to quote and paraphrase the booklet notes.

The opening is slow and ritualistic, rather than sensuous. The excellent recording reproduces the crescendi with real presence - there is a very good sense of space here. Alas this music can appear rather diffuse as Akutagawa's sudden juxtapositions become tiring and even predictable. There is no doubting the composer's mastery of atmosphere creation - he can set one up within seconds - and there is plenty of internal energy here, but a lot of this sounds just like film music.

Finally the early Trinita Sinfonica of 1948, a work whose first movement exudes real humour entirely in keeping with its 'Capriccio' label. This contrasts with the lullaby-like 'Ninnerella' - lovely plaintive bassoon solo. The finale is a wonderful way to end an interesting, if not life-changing, disc. There is a distinct Rimskian jollity about this bright and extrovert five-minutes that will surely leave a smile on your face.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Kevn Sutton

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