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Akira IFUKUBE (b. 1914)
Sinfonia Tapkaara (1954, rev. 1979) [25:57]
Ritmica Ostinata for piano and orchestra* (1961, rev. 1972) [21:33]
Symphonic Fantasia No.1 (1983) [13:15]
Ekaterina Saranceva (piano)*
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky
Rec. 3-12 May 2005, Studio 5 of the Russian State TV & Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow.
NAXOS 8.557587 [60:45]

I have long been intrigued by the ways Asian composers approach working in a western idiom, using as a medium for expression that most distinctively western instrument the symphony orchestra. Hearing such a familiar sound filtered through traditions which are almost literally a world away from ours, we can gain remarkable insights into a perception of western music which would otherwise never arise.

Ifukube goes hammer and tongs into this musical environment, making no attempt at fusion or hybrid compositions using native Japanese instruments or traditional musical forms. Bearing in mind the years in which some of these pieces were written his achievement is quite remarkable.

The Sinfonia Tapkaara is an incredible melting pot of eclectic moments. Ifukube was clearly inspired and fascinated by Russian music (Stravinsky in particular) and was also introduced to Ravel and de Falla during his earlier education, later coming to study with Tcherepnin for a short while. The first movement in particular seems almost bursting to break out into some ‘Lieutenant Kijé’ themes, helped along no doubt by the very Russian Russian Phil. Almost Sibelian moments of well-orchestrated richness are mixed with the emptiness of open fifths and strangely closed or angular melodies. The very banal octave at the end of the first movement will bring a smile every time, but the more I listen to this music, the more I find my ear teased by an unstoppably fertile creative mind at work.

The Ritmica Ostinata holds minimalist promise, but in fact begins with a calm horn call. The entry of the piano over this will have those of you with sensitive relative pitch wincing more than just a little. It sounds like a rather creaky re-conditioned instrument which refuses to stay in tune with itself or anyone else – especially in the upper registers. Never mind: melodies in simultaneous close (minor second) intervals have the piano sounding more like a Tippett-driven dulcimer in any case, and the punchy bass rhythms come through cleanly enough. The ‘ostinato’ is broken up by quieter, more lyrical moments – the overall impression being almost that of variations, or a kind of rondo. The use of a hexatonic scale links the Nymanesque with the Oriental in another strangely compelling mish-mash. That piano really is dreadful though: what my piano technician friend and accompanist Johan (the piano, as opposed to Johan the accordion) calls a ‘WC’.

Ifukube went on to write music for films, and his Symphonic Fantasia No. 1 is a concert arrangement of his work on monster films such as the 1950s and early 1960s Godzilla series. Everything you might expect of such an exercise, it’s a percussion-rich procession of chugging marches and menacing brass. The love theme from Battle in Outer Space provides a little window of quirky melodic relief, but with music sourced from film titles like ‘Frankenstein versus Varagon’ and ‘Destroy all Monsters’ I’m fairly sure you can guess from what kind of dreary nonsense this consists.

The Russian Philharmonic seem to be enjoying themselves, and are quite well recorded, if not always impeccably in synch with each other – I get the feeling the percussionists are a little too remote from the conductor sometimes. With my teeth still jangling from that terrible piano I’m not sure an unreserved recommendation is in place here then, but this CD certainly has a high ‘what’s this then?’ factor, and is guaranteed to break the ice at those ever-popular specialist classical music pub quizzes.

Dominy Clements

see also review by Rob Barnett



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