As pub quiz questions go, ‘name a Japanese
composer of symphonies’ is a pretty
tricky one. Enter Saburo Moroi, who
is represented on this enterprising
disc by three symphonic works from the
1940s. Whatever these works’ intrinsic
artistic merit, it is truly fascinating
to hear music such as this, composed
at such a crucial and ultimately tragic
point in its country’s history.
Naxos have, I think,
done well to place the most immediately
attractive of the three pieces at the
start of the CD. The
Sinfonietta in B flat, subtitled ‘For
Children’, has an opening movement of
considerable charm and inventiveness.
It is delightfully orchestrated, and
shows the strong influence of contemporaneous
music from Europe – Prokofiev, Martinů,
Barber, and even Shostakovich
come to mind.
The brief middle movement
alternates thoughtful music with more
lively episodes, delicately scored.
But it is the third and final movement
which is the biggest surprise; this
is a powerful, even elegiac finale,
belying the disarming title of the symphony.
It is based on climactic recurrences
of a short melodic phrase, and, even
if the ending is rather too abrupt,
this is still haunting, moving music.
The Two Symphonic Movements,
written a year before the Sinfonietta,
are less convincing, though more ambitious.
A stern motif, presented in bold unison
at the start of the Andante Grandioso
(track 4), is relentlessly developed
throughout the Andante grandioso, and
its unsmiling industry does pall quite
quickly. The influences are more
apparent – and this time they are from
earlier composers – Sibelius and Janáček
are prominent, while the final cadence
comes straight from the scherzo of Bruckner’s
7th! Unlike the Sinfonietta,
the references are not really well enough
digested to allow the composer’s own
voice to register. The second movement
is far more successful, with much lively
counterpoint, and some fine orchestration.
And what of Symphony
no.3, completed barely a year before
atomic bombs fell on the cities of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki? The booklet note suggests
that its mood reflects the ‘desperate
state of mind of Japanese intellectuals
in this last stage of the war’. The
first movement is basically a sonata
allegro with a slow introduction, and
it starts with a brooding intensity
of almost Beethovenian power – a rhythmic
motif similar to that of the slow movement
of the great man’s Seventh Symphony
underpinning an expressive oboe solo.
The ensuing allegro has something of
the grimness of the first movement of
op.22 (track 4), but is an infinitely
more accomplished piece. Indeed, this
is really impressive and compelling
music, made the more so by its confident
and sometimes brilliant orchestration.
The influences are there, but they are
totally subsumed in the composer’s own
voice and personality.
A motoric, dissonant
scherzo follows; Moroi’s title ‘About
Humour and Wit’ seems a little disingenuous,
for this music has a vicious edge to
it, as well as a certain air of desperation.
The third and final movement, ‘Aspects
of Death’, is an extended slow movement,
with some memorable ideas and moments;
for example the majestic brass fanfares
that give way to a daringly long drawn
out and unresolved suspension (track
8, 2:22) or the rays of hope that shine
from the upper strings from 7:45. The
conclusion achieves a certain tragic
The question inevitably
arises as to whether there are any distinctively
Japanese elements in this music. The
answer is, to Western ears, probably
not. Just occasionally, a stern and
modal melodic passage presented in stark
unison may hint at the national origin
of the composer. But I doubt whether
the ‘innocent ear’ would identify this
as anything other than Western music.
I started listening
to this CD feeling slightly sceptical,
but have been thoroughly won over by
Saburo Moroi. He is not a great symphonist
in the wider context, yet this music
is undeniably well worth hearing. The
phenomenon of a Japanese composer whose
writing is so firmly rooted in a European
tradition is fascinating enough in itself.
The awareness of the precise time and
place when this music was written gives
it a very great poignancy too.
The performances by
Takuo Yuasa and the National Symphony
Orchestra of Ireland are committed and,
by and large, highly acceptable. Here
and there, upper strings struggle with
some of the more challenging passages,
but these are, fortunately, fairly few
and far between. The recording is up
to the Naxos customary high standard.