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Hisato OHZAWA (1907-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 (1935)* [25:45]
Symphony No. 2 (1934) [37:08]
Ekaterina Saranceva (piano)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dimitry Yablonsky
rec.16-19 March 2006, Studio 5, Russian State TV & Radio Company KULTURA, Moscow
Experience Classicsonline

The Naxos blurb hails Ohzawa as ‘one of the foremost Japanese composers of the first half of the 20th century’; I’d guess he’s unfamiliar to most listeners. To their credit Naxos have set about changing that, with the Piano Concerto No. 3 and Symphony No.3 (8.557416) and now this ‘world premiere recording’ of a similar pairing.
While it’s good that these hitherto obscure works are being aired at last there is always the risk that some finds will be more significant than others. The Yamada disc in the same series (see review) is a case in point; it may be of historical interest but musically it isn’t particularly memorable. As for Hisato Ohzawa, is his work really worth exhumation?
Outwardly the signs are promising. Born into a well-to-do Kobe family Ohzawa studied in Boston with Roger Sessions and Arnold Schoenberg and in Paris with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger. Japanese audiences weren’t too receptive to his music but at least he managed to perform several works in the USA.
The two items on this disc date from Ohzawa’s stay in Paris, where in addition to his studies he met Roussel, Ibert and Honegger. It’s worth remembering that it was a concert of French music in 1925 that inspired him to compose in the first place, so his sojourn in the French capital was significant.
It’s difficult to characterise this piano concerto, other than to say that it’s eclectic in the extreme. First impressions are that the recording is somewhat boxy, the piano writing vaguely reminiscent of Prokofiev but with a lick of jazz. It has vigour and drive, even if textures are a little opaque at times. In fact the orchestral playing is surprisingly coarse – and the close, dry recording doesn’t help.
Russian-born Ekaterina Saranceva, who won the grand prize at the 1984 Montreal International Competition, sounds suitably fiery in the coruscating Allegro, although she has to battle to make herself heard above the rampant orchestra. At least in the Debussian Andante quasi adagio she has a chance to shine. This movement may have gentle impressionistic overtones but it can also sound somewhat gruff. It’s a curious combination and although the Andante quasi adagio is more coherent and involving both movements are quite without character.
The Quasi presto has more in common with the Allegro in its mercurial piano part and orchestration. There are some Ravelian flourishes and for once the conductor gives the music room to breathe, especially in the more lyrical central section. In spite of this the concerto remains dull and charmless. Even after repeated listening the piece sounds as unrewarding as before.
The Symphony, which predates the concerto by a year, is unusual in that it contains four sections within the second movement, including sections for individual instruments and groupings. For instance the first part is an ‘Aria pour cor anglais et orchestre’, the fourth a ‘Toccata pour 4 instruments et orchestre’. It’s a curious arrangement and one that I can’t recall seeing anywhere else.
The Andante – allegro may be somewhat brash and overbearing but it’s certainly arresting. I really wish the recording weren’t so claustrophobic because it makes the frequent tuttis sound so tiring. Perhaps Ohzawa’s rather blatant scoring is partly to blame; that said there is real drive in this movement, with some unexpected sonorities and dynamic shifts.
As with the pianist in the concerto the cor anglais player also struggles to rise above the orchestra at times. My main quibble though is that the orchestral writing is so unvaried. Even so the second and third sections – for violin and orchestra and clarinets and orchestra respectively – are much more ingratiating. Indeed, the clarinets finally inject some much-needed character into this dull score.
The Capriccio alla rondo is vigorous but it never shakes off the air of anonymity that cloaks both the works on this disc. And that really is the problem here; this music never comes close to sounding original or surprising. And even if there were anything of note the unbearably crude recording would obscure it. Musically and sonically: nul points.
Dan Morgan


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