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Kósçak YAMADA (1886-1965)
Nagauta Symphony ‘Tsurukame’ (1934)* [17:23] Symphony ‘Inno Meiji’ (1921)** [18:28]
Choreographic Symphony ‘Maria Magdalena’ (1918) [15:39]
* Touon Tetsuo Miyata; Touon Toshimitsu Moraji; Touon Taro Yamaguchi; Touon Jun Ajimi; Touon Keizo Miyata (Nagauta vocalists); Touon Toru Ajimi; Touon Takehisa Takahashi; Touon Shiro Minoda; Touon Yutaka Miyata; Touon Gojiro Sakamoto (shamisens); Sataro Mochizuki; Satahoshiro Mochizuki; Tatsuyuki Mochizuki; Roei Tosha; Toru Fukahara (hayoshi)
** Yumiko Mizoiri (hichiriki)
Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
rec. 17 October 2005, Kodaira Citizens Cultural Hall, Tokyo. Song text included

Naxos are nothing if not adventurous with their catalogues of American and Japanese Classics. And who has heard of Kósçak Yamada? I would guess most listeners think of Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996) when anyone mentions Japanese classical music. He and Yamada may come from different generations but both are clearly influenced by Western music – Takemitsu by Debussy and Messiaen, with some branches into John Cage and the avant-garde, and Yamada by the German late-Romantics, notably Richard Strauss (1864-1949).

Yamada studied at the Tokyo Music School – originally the Ongaku-Torishirabe-Gakari set up in 1879 to promote Western music – and with Max Bruch at the Musikhochschule in Berlin. He was exposed to some Western music as a boy, through military bands and hymns; his mother was a Protestant. Add to this an interest in traditional Japanese musical forms – something he shares with Takemitsu – and you have a very individual mix indeed.

The Nagauta Symphony ‘Tsurukame’ (1934) is just such a blend, with augmented orchestra ŕ la Strauss and a central contribution from Nagauta musicians using voices, traditional Japanese instruments and percussion. Very briefly Nagauta (Naga- means long, -uta, song) has its roots in the 17th century and can still be heard today as accompaniment in Kabuki theatres. Tsurukame is a classic text by Rokuzaemon Kineya X (1851). This subtitle is significant; Tsuru- means crane, -kame, tortoise, both creatures associated with eternal life. Hence this is a festive text suited to weddings and New Year celebrations.

The ripe Straussian prelude soon gives way to the voice of Touon Tetsuo Miyata and the Nagauta singers and players with their Japanese flutes (fues), shamisens (three-stringed lutes) and percussion. The orchestral writing is chamber-like, lapping at the strange shores of Nagauta. The soloist is placed quite far forward, his narrative a sinuous microtonal melisma working in counterpoint with the orchestra. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the aesthetics of the Kabuki and Noh traditions will probably recognise the kind of world this music inhabits, its ‘otherness’ merely accentuated by the orchestral accompaniment. The music reaches a climax of sorts after a faster, more animated section and ends with another overripe contribution from the orchestra (Salome, anyone)?

Without wishing to sound parochial I found the symphony rather unsatisfying, although it might well reveal more after several auditions. That said it remains a rather uncomfortable collage of musical styles. It certainly seems more Oriental than Occidental, which perhaps explains why it never travelled as well as the Symphony ‘Inno Meiji’ (1921), which was performed in London, Berlin and Moscow in the years before the Second World War. Indeed, the booklet claims there are 78s of this ‘epic’ piece played by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by the composer.

This symphonic poem is a depiction of Japan in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) as the country came out of isolation and engaged with the West. There is a Straussian amplitude to the score that the Berliners would certainly have warmed to, with a stirring climax at 3:32. The mystery and exoticism of Japan are suggested in the percussive rattle familiar from the Nagauta Symphony and the hichiriki, a double-reed instrument that sounds not unlike a clarinet. The two worlds then collide rather crudely in a series of bass-drum-dominated tuttis. The Naxos engineers certainly capture the lower reaches of the audio spectrum rather well, although the string sound does seem a little undernourished by comparison.

The stirring martial theme (from 10:00 onwards) stays just this side of bombast, and is met with the opposing shimmer of gongs. It’s an entente cordiale of sorts, though the underlying tread never quite loses its sense of menace. Towards the end one might hear a hint of Ein Heldenleben (17:00) before the work ends with a triumphant if somewhat overextended peroration.

With its rather schematic East vs West design this piece is long on rhetoric but short on inspiration. It may be the most accessible work on the disc so far, but that’s not saying a great deal. Takuo Yuasa and the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra play all the notes but there’s no disguising the highly derivative nature of this music and the general paucity of invention.

The Choreographic Symphony ‘Maria Magdalena’ arose from Yamada’s fascination with the Russian Ballet, which he saw in Berlin between 1910 and 1913. Begun in 1916 the work was supposed to be a half-hour ballet based on the Maeterlinck play Marie-Magdeleine (1910). It never came to fruition but he orchestrated the piano sketches for Act II and premiered the piece at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1918.

At its centre is the story of Mary Magdalene and the Roman officer who swears his love for her in return for saving Jesus. Mary refuses, while outside the captive Christ passes in a torch-lit procession. The focus returns to Mary, who now seems surrounded by an aura of divinity. It’s scored for a large orchestra and has some intermittently noble writing for brass. There is even some tenderness - voiced by the harps - but the dreary, sub-Straussian harmonies not to mention the hyperactive bass drum and gongs are too close to banality for comfort.

Mildly interesting then, but there are no revelations here. The booklet has some fascinating background on traditional Japanese music but it’s a little disingenuous to use epithets such as ‘epic’ and ‘masterpiece’ to describe Yamada’s work. All credit to Naxos, though, panning for gold where others would never venture. It’s a risky strategy but they can and do find some nuggets in the sand. Regrettably this is not one of them.

Dan Morgan


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