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Kôsçak YAMADA (1886-1965)
Overture in D major (1912) *
Symphony in F major "Triumph and Peace" (1912)
The Dark Gate - Symphonic Poem (1913)
Madara No Hana - Symphonic Poem (1913)
Ulster Orchestra
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra *
Takuo Yuasa
Rec. Wellington Town Hall January 2002 (Overture) Ulster Hall, Belfast 2000-01 (remainder)
NAXOS 8.555350 [58.21]

 

Yamada was a pioneer in the Japanese acceptance of Western music. Conductor, composer and proselytiser he travelled far and achieved a great deal in his musical life. His father was a samurai, his mother a Protestant and he grew up to the sounds of the harmonium, an interest cemented by his sister’s English husband, an amateur musician who encouraged him - not least financially. In 1904 he entered the Tokyo Music School to study voice – there was as yet no composition class – but did mix with some solidly trained German musicians, imported to raise the level of technical competence. One was August Junker, a Joachim pupil, and another Heinrich Werkmeister who had arrived from the Berlin Musikhochschule. It was via Werkmeister’s Japanese pupil, the cellist Koyata Iwasaki that Yamada was to make his way to Berlin where he studied with Max Bruch from 1910 and subsequently with Karl Leopold Wolf.

Yamada was the first Japanese composer to write in symphonic and orchestral form. We have four examples of his work here and they are split down the middle; the Overture and Symphony adhere strictly to academic German models and the symphonic poems exude his excitement at having discovered French impressionism. The Overture has a pleasant fresh air chromaticism and is very competently orchestrated. It constitutes the first Japanese orchestral work (completed in March 1912). The Symphony is a biggish 36-minute work in four movements. The notes speak of his indebtedness to familiar models; Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Dvořák. Well, maybe so but I don’t hear all of them. This is a work rooted in the mid-nineteenth century tradition – some Schumann and rigorous working out; no Brahms that I can hear. It opens with the second strain of the Japanese National Anthem, promisingly, but the effect is momentary because the second theme is entirely Germanic, neatly worked out and of no enormous depth. The slow movement is said to be Beethovenian but it’s actually rather attractively bland and the Scherzo has two trio sections, both very well orchestrated and lively. There are some fine string colours in the allegro section of the finale, plenty of energy too, but the overall effect, as must have been inevitable given the circumstances of its composition, is of a well-crafted treatise not a symphonic statement.

More interesting by far are the two symphonic poems. They both date from 1913. The Dark Gate is based on a symbolist poem by the Japanese poet Rofu Miki. It opens deceptively, with diatonic calm bust soon erupts in ferment, reflecting the ghoulish drama of the poem, the percussion drum rolls only too explicitly reflecting the Knocking Door motif that courses through the poem. Madara No Hana, once again based on a literary Japanese text, employs a big late Romantic orchestra but starts with some fine impressionist writing. The oscillating figures and incremental tension generated reach their zenith in a powerfully controlled outburst. Both these tone poems take death as their subject matter and handle the orchestra with a degree of panache.

It was after the First World War that Yamada travelled to America to conduct his music in New York. In 1921 he was to write his Inno Meiji Symphony in which a western orchestra sported Japanese solo instruments. And he was to become one of the most important figures in Japanese musical life. These early works show him either following prescribed academic formalism (the Overture and the Symphony) or exploring the colouristic and emotive potential implicit in impressionism. It’s the latter path that most clearly appeals even though it remained only imperfectly absorbed at this early stage. The fine performers make out a case for them and for an under-explored area of musical engagement.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Colin Clarke

 



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