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Isotaro SUGATA (1907-1952)
Orchestral works
Symphonic Overture Op. 6 (1939) [16.31]; Peaceful Dance of Two Dragons Op. 8 (1940) [12.20]; Ballet Music “The Rhythm of Life” Op. 25 (1950) [21.51]; Dancing Girl in the Orient (from “Sketches of the Desert) Suite in Oriental style Op. 10 (1941) [4.46]
Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra/Kazuhiko Komatsu
rec. Kanagawa Art Hall, 29-30 June 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.570319 [55.28] 

Experience Classicsonline

Naxos 20th Century Japanese Music series goes from strength to strength and has thrown up many fascinating, exciting and sometimes curious items. I would rate this disc in the third of those categories, but that does not mean that it afforded me little pleasure; quite the reverse. I will explain, but first the composer. 

Sugata studied in Europe as the Japanese of that generation mostly did. His teacher, and greatest influence was Paul Hindemith. Sugata also discovered Stravinsky; who wouldn’t have done. He was also fully conversant with Japanese scales and techniques used in the traditional music of his homeland. Put all of this into the melting pot and you end up with the music on this disc. 

The Symphonic Overture does not let you into Sugata’s world that easily. It is the least interesting and distinctive work here and it has an air of inflated pomposity. Nevertheless it is well constructed and was chosen for the 1939 celebration of the 2600th Year of the Emperor held by NHK (The Japanese Broadcasting Corporation) who commissioned the work. It is basically the product of Sugata’s studies with Hindemith with ‘Mathis der Maler’ as its inspiration. But it is not a clone and has some individual touches especially in the wind writing and in the fifth-based harmonies. 

The ‘Peaceful Dance of the Two Dragons’, as its title may indicate, is much more reflective of Sugata’s home background. It falls into three sections mysteriously entitled: JO, HA and KYU. In the extensive and indispensable booklet notes by Morihide Katayama the following explanation is offered: “Sugata attempts to combine the style of Gagaku with his interest in Stravinsky and Bartók”. He continues: “The dance music of Gagaku is basically made up of three movements Jo-Ha-Kyu that is Overture, Development and Rapid Finale.” So that means Jo is a slow tempo, Ha is faster and Kyu is the fastest tempo. Sugata also introduces “primitivist rhythms” with open fifths accompaniment and chords made from pentatonic scales. It makes for a fascinating and enjoyable mix. 

In the ‘Ballet Music “The Rhythm of Life” another influence is not only discernible but very strong, that is Igor Stravinsky. More specifically the music echoes with ‘Sacre du Printemps’, ‘The Firebird’ and ‘Petrouchka’. Sugata quotes from these works and copies some of the orchestral effects mixing them finely with his own. No wonder it was never played in his all too short lifetime. If it had have been then the great Igor would have been demanding at least his 10%. There are three movements: Moderato, Andante leading to a Scherzando and finally a Lento. Listen out for ideas very close to “The Mystical circles of the young girls”; the rhythms of ‘Petrouchka’ and a melody from ‘Firebird’. Why did he do it and does it amount to anything? Well as a ballet I think it could work with its colour and wide variety of sounds and textures. The orchestration is clever and evocative. Each time I have heard it, it has retained a hold on my attention.

It’s a pity that with the disc playing for under an hour and with music by a composer unknown to most of us, more space could not have been found for other movements from “Sketches from the Desert”. The one we have is the fourth of a suite “In Oriental style”. After completion it took over sixty years before a performance proved possible. I was reminded of a Ketèlbey pastiche-Oriental ‘Persian Market’ piece. There’s a modal/minor gentle ¾ rhythm and reminscences of Ippolitov-Ivanov and of the only work of his I know, the “Caucasian Sketches”. Sugata is none the worse for that and the little dance makes an attractive end to the disc. 

The Kanagawa Philharmonic are new to me. They were founded as recently as 1970 and give the impression that they knew the music well in advance of the recording session, which, sadly, is not always the case. Kazuhiko Komatsu, a leading musical figure in his country, directs them with understanding and presents the diverse musical characteristics demanded by the composer with ease.

A pleasurable and fascinating hour’s worth of orchestral music. Well worth exploring. 

Gary Higginson 





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