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Toshiro MAYUZUMI (1929-1997)
Symphonic Mood (1950) [18:45]
Bugaku - Ballet in Two Parts (Court Dance Music) (1962) [23:29]
Mandala Symphony (1958) [17:54]
Rumba Rhapsody (1948) [8:12]
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
rec. Michael Fowler Center, Wellington, New Zealand, 23-25 August 2004.
NAXOS 8.557693 [68:20]


Believe it or not, Mayuzumi’s Nirvana Symphony was the first work by any Japanese composer that I ever heard. In the mid-1960s, I borrowed a copy of a long-deleted LP recording from the local music library. That particular work made quite an impression on me, then, although I found it rather austere as a whole. Some time later, the late Manuel Rosenthal, then Music Director of the Liège Symphony Orchestra - as it was then known - conducted a performance of the colourful, if rather slight Bacchanal (1954) that obviously inhabited a completely different sound-world. At that time I did not know that Bacchanal had been composed before the Nirvana Symphony. Now, with this instalment in Naxos’s Japanese series, I understand things a bit better, for the works here trace Mayuzumi’s early composing life, from its very beginnings to its early maturity, so that we may gather some idea of his musical progress over the years. His output, however, was quite large and extraordinarily varied, ranging from ‘pop’ items to sophisticated electronic pieces, serial music and culminating in his two operas Kinkakuji (1976) based on Mishima’s novel and Kojiki. Curiously enough, these operas were written on commission from foreign organisations (Deutsche Oper Berlin and Linz respectively). Incidentally, a recording of Kinkakuji is available on Fontec FOCD 3282/3, but I have not heard it.

Mayuzumi studied, among others, with Qunihico Hashimoto and Akira Ifukube, whose music may now be heard in two Naxos discs; and both of them influenced the young composer in one way or another. Hashimoto had a particular liking for French music, whereas Ifukube was under the spell of Stravinsky’s Rite; and these influences are quite clearly heard in Mayuzumi’s first orchestral work Symphonic Mood completed in 1950. The first panel opens in an obvious impressionistic mood and moves into an energetic dance section. A varied restatement of the opening concludes the first part. The second, dance-like panel is propelled by massive ostinati - a technique probably learned from Ifukube. The music is colourful, with oriental-sounding textures, and displays a formidable orchestral mastery on the young composer’s part.

Like the Nirvana Symphony, although with different aims and means, the Mandala Symphony is rather more ambitious in intent, and – to some extent – rather more modern-sounding. It is an attempt to blend Eastern and Western musical traditions into a musically satisfying whole, while avoiding the all-too-obvious picturesque clichés. This has been – and still is – a frequent preoccupation of Eastern composers, be they Chinese or Japanese; some have been more successful than others. The comparison with the Nirvana Symphony can still be carried a step further, in that Mayuzumi based the thematic material of Mandala Symphony on two six-note rows derived from the overtones of the bell of Buddhist temples, which he had studied in an almost scientific way while in Kyoto. The first movement opens with fragmentary ideas, with much percussion and – again – quite a lot of ostinati; the music is sometimes reminiscent of Stravinsky. The second movement Extrèmement lent (“Very slow”) opens mysteriously. The music gains momentum - again often generated by ostinati - punctuated by heavy brass chords. It becomes somewhat more ponderous with heavy blows from brass and percussion, before reaching a peaceful coda with softly chiming percussion.

Bugaku was composed for the New York City Ballet with choreography by George Balanchine. The music draws on the ancient imperial dance music of gagaku. This is clearly heard in the opening bars of the first part, e.g. strings’ glissandi some eerie harmonies over a bass drone. The mysterious introduction soon gives way to an animated dance section capped by a coda, actually a shortened restatement of the opening music. The second part opens somewhat ominously with a bass drum ostinato leading into a stately dance section gaining in intensity as the music unfolds and ends with an emphatic peroration. In spite of the clear allusions to gagaku, the music is lushly scored most of the time, and is another example of Mayuzumi’s command of the orchestra.

The very early Rumba Rhapsody, which surprisingly enough receives its first performance, is an easy-going miniature in which the young composer flexes his muscles. Light music of popular appeal, no doubt, but quite expertly done.

These works by Mayuzumi undoubtedly belong to his most accessible pieces, and none of them may be considered an earth-shaking masterpiece; but they all make for a very enjoyable disc. Excellent performances from New Zealand and very fine recording throughout. With this release, Naxos’s Japanese series moves closer in time. I hope that this most welcome series will soon be investigating the music of younger Japanese composers, such as Ikebe, Nishimura and Hosokawa, to name but a few that come to mind.

Hubert Culot

see also Reviews by Gary Higginson, Kevin Sutton and Rob Barnett


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