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Saburo MOROI (1903-1977)
Sinfonietta in B flat op.24 ‘For Children’ (1943) [15:46]
(1.Allegro grazioso [5:25]; 2. Andantino quasi Allegretto [3:16]; 3.Lento affabile [7:05])
Two Symphonic Movements, op.22 (1942) [19:09]
(Andante grandioso [12:05]; Allegro con spirito [7:04])
Symphony no.3, op.25 (1944) [33:20]
(A Tranquil Overture: Andante molto tranquillo e grandioso – Birth of Spirit and its Growth: Allegro vivace [15:09]; About Humour and Wit: Allegretto scherzando [4:31]; Aspects of Death: Adagio tranquillo [13:40])
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland/Takuo Yuasa
rec. National Concert Hall, Dublin, Ireland, 9–11 Sept 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.557162 [68:15]

As pub quiz questions go, ‘name a Japanese composer of symphonies’ is a pretty tricky one. Enter Saburo Moroi, who is represented on this enterprising disc by three symphonic works from the 1940s. Whatever these works’ intrinsic artistic merit, it is truly fascinating to hear music such as this, composed at such a crucial and ultimately tragic point in its country’s history.

Naxos have, I think, done well to place the most immediately attractive of the three pieces at the start of the CD. The Sinfonietta in B flat, subtitled ‘For Children’, has an opening movement of considerable charm and inventiveness. It is delightfully orchestrated, and shows the strong influence of contemporaneous music from Europe – Prokofiev, Martinů, Barber, and even Shostakovich come to mind.

The brief middle movement alternates thoughtful music with more lively episodes, delicately scored. But it is the third and final movement which is the biggest surprise; this is a powerful, even elegiac finale, belying the disarming title of the symphony. It is based on climactic recurrences of a short melodic phrase, and, even if the ending is rather too abrupt, this is still haunting, moving music.

The Two Symphonic Movements, written a year before the Sinfonietta, are less convincing, though more ambitious. A stern motif, presented in bold unison at the start of the Andante Grandioso (track 4), is relentlessly developed throughout the Andante grandioso, and its unsmiling industry does pall quite quickly. The influences are more apparent – and this time they are from earlier composers – Sibelius and Janáček are prominent, while the final cadence comes straight from the scherzo of Bruckner’s 7th! Unlike the Sinfonietta, the references are not really well enough digested to allow the composer’s own voice to register. The second movement is far more successful, with much lively counterpoint, and some fine orchestration.

And what of Symphony no.3, completed barely a year before atomic bombs fell on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The booklet note suggests that its mood reflects the ‘desperate state of mind of Japanese intellectuals in this last stage of the war’. The first movement is basically a sonata allegro with a slow introduction, and it starts with a brooding intensity of almost Beethovenian power – a rhythmic motif similar to that of the slow movement of the great man’s Seventh Symphony underpinning an expressive oboe solo. The ensuing allegro has something of the grimness of the first movement of op.22 (track 4), but is an infinitely more accomplished piece. Indeed, this is really impressive and compelling music, made the more so by its confident and sometimes brilliant orchestration. The influences are there, but they are totally subsumed in the composer’s own voice and personality.

A motoric, dissonant scherzo follows; Moroi’s title ‘About Humour and Wit’ seems a little disingenuous, for this music has a vicious edge to it, as well as a certain air of desperation. The third and final movement, ‘Aspects of Death’, is an extended slow movement, with some memorable ideas and moments; for example the majestic brass fanfares that give way to a daringly long drawn out and unresolved suspension (track 8, 2:22) or the rays of hope that shine from the upper strings from 7:45. The conclusion achieves a certain tragic grandeur.

The question inevitably arises as to whether there are any distinctively Japanese elements in this music. The answer is, to Western ears, probably not. Just occasionally, a stern and modal melodic passage presented in stark unison may hint at the national origin of the composer. But I doubt whether the ‘innocent ear’ would identify this as anything other than Western music.

I started listening to this CD feeling slightly sceptical, but have been thoroughly won over by Saburo Moroi. He is not a great symphonist in the wider context, yet this music is undeniably well worth hearing. The phenomenon of a Japanese composer whose writing is so firmly rooted in a European tradition is fascinating enough in itself. The awareness of the precise time and place when this music was written gives it a very great poignancy too.

The performances by Takuo Yuasa and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland are committed and, by and large, highly acceptable. Here and there, upper strings struggle with some of the more challenging passages, but these are, fortunately, fairly few and far between. The recording is up to the Naxos customary high standard.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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