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Toshiro MAYUZUMI (1929-1997)
Rumba Rhapsody (1948) [8.12]; Symphonic Mode (1950) [18.45]; Mandala Symphony (1960) [17.54]; Bugaku - Ballet in Two Parts - Court Dance Music (1962) [23.29]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 23-25 August 2004
NAXOS 8.557693 [68.20]

Now what do you make of this for a composer’s CV: Born in Southern Japan. One of his first teachers while a teenager had been a pupil of Hindemith. On moving to Tokyo he met and was taught by Qunihaco Hashimoto, (a pupil of Egon Wellesz) who at that time was writing much ‘patriotic’ music. Hashimoto introduced Mayuzumi to Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and in the light of Wellesz some dodecaphonic music. During the war, Mayuzumi having been interested in pop music, met jazz and Latin-American dance music head-on. He also got to know the ‘doyen’ of the older school of Japanese masters Akira Ifukube who was attempting to bring Japanese traditional melodies into the western orchestral repertoire. In preparing this review I also listened to Ifukube’s rather ethnic Ballata Sinfonica of 1943 (BIS-CD-490) to see exactly where Mayuzumi’s starting point might have been. I should add that at the moment of writing I have just (February 2006) heard of Ifukube’s death aged 92.

After the war, now in Paris, Mayuzumi got to know Peter Schaffer’s experiments in the electronic music field or as it was then called ‘Musique concrète’ and himself wrote the first electronic Japanese music. He was by now on a French government sponsored scheme and came into contact with Varèse and Messiaen. It is not too surprising that amongst his many achievements is a substantial corpus of film music. Quite a CV!

This information is available in the extensive booklet notes by Morihude Katayama, however the notes are a little restricted when it comes to the music. For that you are advised to investigate I did this but those notes give you only a little more biographical detail and no further musical detail.

What does the music actually sound like? Depending on your viewpoint and taste it can sound like the whole lot mixed together - utterly eclectic. My own feeling is that this could well be the way forward in music and will be for some years to come. The only criterion is: ‘Is this good music’. Here I have a bit of a problem. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the performances as far as I can tell, being scoreless and with nothing to judge against. The players seem on top of the music’s often unusual demands and we can surely expect that Takuo Yuasa, who was born in Tokyo, has a natural understanding of the composer’s demands. There is nothing wrong with the recording which is vivid and exciting. So one has to say that the music is given its best opportunity.

The Rumba Rhapsody has a rather impressionist opening before taking off into something more ‘Latin’ with typical percussion. I was even reminded of Malcolm Arnold.

In the diptych, entitled Symphonic Mood, Debussy often seems close at hand especially in Movement 1; perhaps it’s the use of the pentatonic scale which one associates with Eastern music. In any case I hear more of Japan in this piece than in any other. In the second movement Vivo some rather light-hearted film score comes to mind, very colourfully orchestrated.

The Mandala Symphony, also in two sections, is inspired by the composer’s interest in Buddhism, and is considerably more ‘modern’, unpredictable and dissonant. Mayuzumi admits to using serial technique here. This score is more typical of a work dating from the European 1960s. It expresses the kind of pantheism which is the composer’s aim. In the first part Buddha descends to preach to man. In the second man rises to seek after Buddha’s truth. There are some very loud and powerfully disturbing passages to be found along the way.

The Bugaku ballet music reminded me of Hiroshi Ohguri (1918-1982) a contemporary of Mayuzumi’s from Osaka. Its opening string glissandi are more a reflection of the instrumental grammar found in traditional ‘Noh’ theatre and are also used by Ohguri in his Violin Concerto. That this ballet is also entitled Court Dance Music should therefore be no surprise. These glissandi build up in Part 1 - again this piece is a diptych in form - and then by about four minutes in, forms an impressive vast wild landscape with Hollywood overtones. One can hear modern day Japan somewhere in this massive orchestration. Part 2 begins rather like a motley procession of enraged soldiers faltering across a water-colour landscape, before evoking colourful local instruments with wailing woodwind and low growling brass. Wonderful stuff.

Whether all this coheres into a style that is individual and important I cannot at this point say. This is however music with ‘character’ which surprises if not always pleases. But then, ‘contemporary’ Japanese music is still an area which I for one need to know more about. The use of the orchestra is intriguing and often exciting, the melodic material varied and normally memorable if sometimes derivative. Rhythmically there are some foot-tapping moments à la Copland.

All in all I would say that it can do no harm to investigate this composer who, when all of the music is weighed up, has something to offer all listeners.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Kevin Sutton and Rob Barnett

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