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Yasushi AKUTAGAWA (1925-1989)
Rapsodia per orchestra (1971) [15:04]
Ellora Symphony (1958) [17:24]
Trinita Sinfonica (1948) [21:41]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Takua Yuasa
Recorded at the Lower Hutt Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 29-31 January 2002.
NAXOS 8.555975 [54:09]

The son of a famous writer and the brother of a famous actor, Yasushi Akutagawa was a leading figure in Japanese arts and letters throughout his long and successful career. He was active not only in the professional realm, but was also a strong advocate for amateur music-making, conducting both amateur choirs and orchestras while refusing a fee. His music spans a number of styles, including a brief experimentation with the avant-garde. He abandoned this path though when he came to the conclusion that such music would be inaccessible to many listeners, a situation that ran contrary to his populist outlook on the arts.

The Rapsodia per orchestra from 1971 is a somewhat programmatic work. The composer imagines himself as a sorcerer, waving his wand over the page and bringing sounds to life. A heavily orchestrated work, it draws on a wide complement of winds and percussion to give it its distinctive palette. Formally, the music owes much to Stravinsky, with memorable themes that recur throughout, interspersed with bursts of energy and variation of timbre. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra presents a tight, no-nonsense type of performance, with clear balance between sections. Takua Yuasa is skilful at handling so large and dense a score, always avoiding washes of sound in favor of clarity of line and demarcation of melody.

Named after a town in India that is home to a famous temple, the Ellora Symphony is less conservative than the older Rapsodia. There is considerably more variation in dynamic levels, and the lyricism of the later work is missing. There are dark bursts of thick chromatic harmonies, and formally there is less thematic glue to hold the piece together. Instead, we are treated to a vast canvas in which colors and shapes either fade in and out of view or are abruptly changed before the eye. Made up of sixteen short sections, there is infinite variety in the orchestration and plenty to keep the interest of the listener. The New Zealanders turn in a memorable performance, full of vigor and interest with some striking and fascinating shifts of mood.

Trinita Sinfonica is an early work, one which brought the composer his first success. The influence of Shostakovich is evident from the first bar, with martial rhythmic gestures accentuated by almost military punctuation in the percussion. There is little subtlety in the shifts in dynamics with rapid jarring leaps between pianissimo and fortissimo. Another fine performance from the New Zealanders makes this the most memorable and dare I say listenable work on the disc, and it should be for this piece that a purchase be made.

Excellent but somewhat overlong program notes provide ample information about the composer and his times. An interesting figure, sadly neglected in western countries, this disc is a welcome introduction to a composer certainly worthy of hearing. Thanks be to Naxos for continuing to plumb the mines of interesting and unusual music, and presenting it at their ever-attractive price.

Highly recommended.

Kevin Sutton

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