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Akio YASHIRO (1929-1976)
Piano Concerto (1961); Symphony (1958)
Hiromi Okanda (piano)
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
Rec. September 2000 (Symphony) and June 2001 (Concerto), Ulster Hall Belfast DDD
NAXOS 8.555351 [59.34]



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Naxos’s ‘Japanese Classics’ series continues apace, and what unknown treasures are surfacing. These composers are practically unplayed in the West and I feel strongly that we are missing out. Anyway before I start the review, three cheers to all concerned for presenting this music so well, in fine recordings and so cheaply.

The Ulster Orchestra, coming to this music completely afresh but under the Japanese conductor Takuo Yuasa, who is making a reputation internationally, they respond wonderfully and are in fine form

For the reader to grasp the language of this composer and to know what to expect if you are to splash out the £5 required we should have a brief look at Yasiro’s biography.

He was born of a well-to-do family in Tokyo, his father being a leading historian of European Fine Arts. His mother was a pianist. His first teachers were all local but mostly steeped in Classical Western music. They included Sabuto Moroi who had studied in Berlin and who greatly admired Beethoven. " Moroi believed that the organic and strict development of a motif was in all composition." (booklet notes by Morihude Katayama). His next teacher Qunihaco Hashimoto introduced him to Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Yashiro’s school, Gyoset High, was run "by French Catholic monks … and he was trained in the French language". He later moved in circles which included contemporary Japanese composers who had studied with Tcherepnin. He went off to Paris to sit at the knees of Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen.

It was Yashiro’s belief that he should not be too prolific. His emphasis was on the highly fastidious; another French trait. Each work "should be perfect"- an intriguing prospect.

Consequently the only survivals from his pen are: a sonata for two flutes, a piano sonata, and a string quartet written whilst he was a Parisian student. There is also a cello concerto in addition to the works recorded here. You can also find some film music written during his twenties.

It should not be surprising to find in the two works represented here, influences of all of these philosophies and figures. Bartók appears at the beginning of the Concerto. Messiaen features in its second movement (the slow music from Turangalila). There is more Messiaen in the Adagio of the Symphony’s first movement. Debussy and Ravel figure also in the use of impressionist harmonies and orchestration. This is especially prominent in the slower music. Traditional Japanese music can be heard in the percussion writing of the Lento of the Symphony and in the rhythm of its Scherzo which uses a 6/8+ 2/8+6/8 pattern.

Having said all that, his the voice is uniquely his own and in my view it is quite fascinating, beautiful and exotic. One can only regret that Yashiro’s early death at the age of 47 put an end to what was still a burgeoning compositional life. If I have a criticism of the symphony it is that there is a predominance of slow music. The Scherzo is less than four minutes and the last movement is only Allegro energico for just over half of its nine minute course. The work lasts almost thirty-three minutes.

These then are substantial works which will, I am sure, afford great pleasure and reward repeated playings. As a party game, play your friends the second movement of the Piano Concerto with its three bar repetition of the note C forty-one times or the rolling opening of the symphony. See which composers they come up with. I found it quite intriguingly revealing.

Gary Higginson



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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