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Ryuichi SAKAMOTO (b. 1952)
For Mr Lawrence
Jeroen van Veen (piano)
Sandra van Veen (piano, disc 3)
rec. 2019, Studio II, Pernissimo, Pernis, The Netherlands
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95389 [5 CDs: 344:05]

If, like me, you have a slightly weird brother who in the late 1970s and early 1980s had a liking for techno-pop or electro-pop, then you could well know of Ryuichi Sakamoto. He is a founder member of the Yellow Magic Orchestra, a group formed in 1978. It has gone on to be regarded, along with the likes of Kraftwerk, as influential and ground-breaking in the development and use of synthesizers, drum machines, computers, samplers, sequencers, and digital recording equipment in popular music. He may, however, be best known for his BAFTA-winning score for the 1983 film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence. He also starred in it as Yonoi, the commander of the POW camp, who struggles with his personal sexuality and with his feelings for British army officer, Major Jack Celliers, played by David Bowie. Sakamoto is also known for composing the music for the opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 and the music for the Bernardo Bertolucci film, The Last Emperor. He has continued as composer, performer and producer, and actor. his career was temporarily halted when in 2014 he was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer.

As you can imagine, this set begins with Sakamoto’s most famous piece; the main theme from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence works well for solo piano. I never once wished for the orchestrated version. This is followed by a couple of quite gentile and in some cases, doleful music, which demonstrate Sakamoto’s pianistic qualities. More animated music can be found in Dancing in the Sky, before we are treated to the main theme from the 1990 film of The Sheltering Sky, which earned him and his co-composer, Richard Horowitz, a Golden Globe the following year.

Disc two opens with more award-winning music, this time from Sakamoto’s only Oscar-winning score, The Last Emperor. He also won a Golden Globe for it, along with his co-composers David Byrne and Cong Su. There follows some music he composed for the PlayStation 2 game, Seven Samurai 20XX, which is quite atmospheric. Behind the Mask brought back memories of the Yellow Magic Orchestra.

The booklet notes tell us that Sakamoto, in his own concerts, would sometimes use an extra pre-programed piano to get the effect he desired. On disc three, Jeroen van Veen is joined by his wife Sandra on a second piano to achieve the same outcome on six tracks. His brief notes discuss some of these pieces as “in a typical Steve Reich Style”. I can see where he is coming from, but I find them more akin to Michael Nyman’s music.

Disc four opens with Amore and Lost Child, both with a lilting feel. Sonatine and Intermezzo, whilst obviously modern in character, seem to hark back to an earlier period and style. I particularly like the two Chorals, with their added sonority.

Disc five continues in a similar fashion. It opens with Eight Themes of Eight. There is no reference to this title in the booklet notes, so what the title refers to I do not know, and van Veen glosses over the last two discs. He just writes that Ryuichi Sakamoto still composes, so further volumes might be forthcoming. Another short track on this disc, Ex Jazz, takes us away to another place: it is reminiscent of an improvisation you might here in a late-night jazz club. There is more music here, as there is throughout the set, which has a cinematic feel, such as A Flower is not a Flower. The final track, High Tide, reminds me more of Sakamoto’s Yellow Magic Army period.

This is an interesting and enjoyable set. I would not recommend that you sit down and listen to the whole set at once. It does stand repeated listening, so a disc at a time would be a good idea, as there is here a lot of music in similar styles, if different thematically. Jeroen van Veen proves a real champion of Sakamoto’s music, and plays very well. One can find performances of the Sakamoto Trio of some of the pieces online; the violin and the cello certainly add to the music. The pianist has produced these recordings himself and done a good job. The recorded sound is very good. The booklet notes, however, leave a lot to be desired. The biographical writing is fine, but the comments on the music are brief at best, and (as already noted) there are none for discs four and five. Overall, this was an enjoyable listen. Brilliant Classics should be applauded for bringing us such a comprehensive set as this.

Stuart Sillitoe

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