Naxos's massive 'American Classics' series - now around 400 releases strong - has rightly received plaudits, and continues to turn up gem after gem that few other labels would have the financial courage to record - certainly not in anywhere near the same quantity. Similarly, Naxos's far smaller and underexposed 'Japanese Classics' series continues to produce some fabulous music with almost every release: not just the more obvious Toru Takemitsu CDs - the Orchestral Works especially (review) - but also, for example, Akio Yashiro's Piano Concerto and Symphony (review), Komei Abe's Symphony no.1 and Sinfonietta (review) or Masao Ohki’s 'Hiroshima' Symphony (review).
This latest disc, of orchestral works by Teizo Matsumura, is as good as any that have gone before. Matsumura knew Takemitsu, the only Japanese composer to have captured the public's imagination internationally - a curiosity, given Takemitsu's avant-gardism and very infrequent interaction with tonality. Music-lovers with more traditionally oriented tastes will be relieved to know that Matsumura's music is nothing like Takemitsu's.
Commissioned by the Japan Philharmonic and premiered in 1965, the Symphony no.1 is a work of enormous, almost overwhelming power, with a finale that is little short of terrifying - although the booklet goes a little too far in describing the notes surging "like a flood, multiplying and amplifying infinitely". On the subject of odd turns of phrase, the Naxos blurb says, apparently quoting Matsumura, that the Symphony "evokes the image of innumerable locusts swarming over the earth." Perhaps it will to some, but it is at any rate a hugely memorable work that deserves a regular place in the concert hall.
Unlikely as it sounds, Symphony no.2 was inspired by a poster of the two "sumo-wrestler-like statues [with] angry countenances and imposing musculature" that guard Buddhist temples. The notes describe the work as "Matsumura’s spiritual monologue, full of both sorrow and hope, marking the close of the twentieth century." The Symphony might be characterised as ambiguous rather than pessimistic, though its colours are certainly more dark than light. The piano's presence is not concertante but recursive - often simple and repetitive, for effective mood creation. The finale is three minutes of inspired brilliance; the work as a whole is noisy, but tonal and overall, like the rest of Matsumura's music on this disc, pretty approachable to ears attuned to the European symphonic heritage that stems from Wagner and Strauss. Perhaps he is most reminiscent of the great Finnish symphonist, Kalevi Aho.
To the Night of Gethsemane is a third imposing, profound work, a very European tone poem inspired by Giotto’s fresco The Kiss of Judas, with the added poignancy of being Matsumura's last orchestral work, a pathos reflected in the surprising violin solo in the coda.
The reliably excellent RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra give a necessarily virtuosic, masculine performance, as they have done many times before for Naxos. They are masterfully conducted by Takuo Yuasa, who has quite a record already with different orchestras performing Japanese music on Naxos (see reviews of Toshiro Mayuzumi, Kosaku Yamada, Yasushi Akutagawa or Saburo Moroi, for example).
Sound quality is good, but the engineers clearly had a difficult task before them in trying to capture the full range of Matsumura's dynamic and pitch requirements, and they have not entirely succeeded - some definition is lost when the music is at its loudest and highest. Nothing drastic, though. The headphone-listener with sharp ears must accept the occasional bit of audible humming from Yuasa in To the Night of Gethsemane, but otherwise there are no noises off anywhere.
The recordings were made while Matsumura was still alive; the notes do not say whether he attended the sessions, but at least he was probably aware that these great works of his were being immortalised by Yuasa, the RTÉ NSO and Naxos. Symphony no.2 is recorded here for the first time - indeed, the notes say this is the first ever performance of the final revision.
The tiny-fonted notes are informative, though sometimes excursive - the original Japanese was translated and edited, and then 'adapted' by Naxos, giving a few melodramatic turns of phrase ("Utterly devastated, he wandered about for several days with sleeping pills at the ready") and obscure bits of detail.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk