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Toshiro MAYUZUMI (1919-1997)
Pieces for prepared piano and strings (1957) [9:29]
Samsara, symphonic poem (1962) [19:46]
Essay for string orchestra (1963) [10:33]
Benjamin Owen, piano
Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney, Akira Endo
rec. 1963, 1966, 1980, Louisville, Kentucky


The Louisville analogue heritage both mono and stereo has been reanimated by Matthew Walters First Edition CD label. In a visionary recording programme that stretched from the 1950s to the 1980s, first Robert Whitney and then Jorge Mester commissioned and recorded contemporary works as well as a smattering of works from the early twentieth and nineteenth centuries. The accent was on new commissions and on the neglected and the modern. It was a startlingly valiant enterprise and no doubt continued despite boardroom struggles, union issues, personality conflicts and financial buffeting.

Toshiro Mayuzumi may be best known to music-lovers in the West as the writer of at least one Biblical film score for Hollywood. In addition however there are symphonies, other orchestral works, electronic pieces, operas and even musicals. He studied with Ifukube and Ikenouchi at Tokyo University and emerged equipped to adopt Western avant-garde paraphernalia to express Buddhist values and the musical traditions of ancient Japan.

This is the first time I have encountered his music although I have certainly heard of his symphonies. The Pieces for Prepared Piano and Strings is a work conducted by Whitney and has Benjamin Owen as the solo pianist. The score prescribes in detail the insert of bolts or screws of various sizes inside the piano as well as two pieces of rubber. Around the surprisingly varied textures thus extracted from the piano wisps of sound are conjured in a spare and diaphanous skein from the orchestra. Fragments of ideas rise and fall away all the time. Longer lines are suggested, insinuated but not fully stated - itís all very subtle and minimal. Five years later Mayuzumi wrote the twenty minute continuous 20 minute tone poem Samsara. The title refers to the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This work feels more fully rounded. It is an unashamedly philosophical-mysterious piece related to the Buddhist faith. It has the surface impression of early Messiaen though not as rampantly romantic - more suggestive of eternity and sphinx-like arcana. Finally comes the Essay for string orchestra - the latest work here. This is eerie and is written for the highest reaches of the violin register. The fine conductor Akeo Watanabe felt that the work was strongly connected to the Japanese Gagaku style. It is however slightly more thorny than the Gagaku-based works of Cowell and Hovhaness. The violin ululations (5:30) link with Pendereckiís Hiroshima Threnody.

Everything here is in stereo and while the sound is not the state of the art it is very complementary to this subtle and unusual music. It is a pity that there was not another Mayuzumi work that could have been added but even so this disc is essential to any Mayuzumi collection.

Rob Barnett

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