Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, ‘From the New World’ (1893) [42:38]
Akira IFUKUBE (1914-2006)
Sinfonie Tapkaara (1954, rev. 1979) [30:29]
Godzilla: No. 7, ‘Godzilla vs. Kinghidorah’ [2”34]
Tokyo Phllharmonic Orchestra/Andrea Battistoni
rec. June 1-2, 2017, Tokyo Concert Hall
MDG 650 2176-2 [75:46]
The last live performance I heard of Dvořák's 'New World' Symphony was in Basel, and was what we then thought of as preparatory to the Gstaad Festival (an event for journalists had been held earlier in the day). Reading the review heading on Seen and Heard International has a somewhat ironic feel: “Seong-Jin Cho and Manfred Honeck whet the appetite for the Gstaad Festival 2020”. The Festival was not be, of course, thanks to coronavirus; and it is perhaps inevitable that hearing the piece again brings back those associations.
However, there is no doubting that the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Veronese conductor Andrea Battistoni make a fine combination in Dvořák. Battistoni, born 1987, was named Chief Conductor of the Tokyo Philharmonic in 2016. There is plenty of detail, caught in a fabulous recording (a co-production between Dabringhaus und Grimm and Denon). There is no repeat in the first movement, but this is a highly atmospheric account which does not lose its way, even taking into account a daring slowing for the flute second subject. Beautifully balanced chords at the start of the famous Largo imply a fine ear at the helm. A meticulously executed diminuendo leading into a cor anglais entry stands testament to the care lavished on the preparation here. The Lento is a more variegated statement than many; the climaxes are visceral (demonstration quality recording, too) and the ending caught in crystal, heart-stopping clarity – in fact the ending needs the bright and breezy Scherzo to refresh as well as reanimate. Battistoni’s finale almost stands as a tone-poem in its own right; its demeanour is positively that of a narration. This is terrific conducting, with discipline at a premium level. All credit to the horns, to the Principal for the solo with its perfectly placed high E natural and for his colleagues for such firm rhythm in the succeeding bars.
The expansive Lento molto which opens Akira Ifukube’s Sinfonia Tapkaara was added in the 1979 revision (the title comes from an Sinu dance). Based in remote Hokkaido until 1945, Ifukube’s degree was in practical forestry. His music was influenced by both American and Japanese elements, and the Sinfonia Tapkaara was actually premiered, in its original version, in Indianapolis. A pupil of Alexander Tcherepnin and an admirer of Stravinsky, Ifukube writes music which is curious in that it is difficult to pin down geographically but it is also at the same time incredibly cogent. There are a lot of hints of Americana, but with a prevailing Slavic accent. This is also illustrative music; the first movement is intended to evoke life in Hokkaido and the interaction between natives and Americans. The music is deliberately sectional, the coda a riot. The quiet nocturne of the central movement is simply beautiful, droplet-like descending lines on the harp set against the woodwind solos. Orientalism is more pronounced here, coloured by harmonies more associated with America. Perhaps it is in the helter-skelter, distinctly Stravinskian finale that one feels the sheer power available to Ifukube. The motoric, driven nature of the movement is expertly negotiated by Battistoni, as are the teasing rhythms. As Ifukube layers on rhythms and the music hurtles towards the finish line (along with the occasional trombone glissando), there’s no escaping the fun of it all.
The performance comes into direct competition with Dmitry Yablonsky on Naxos (review). Interestingly, Naxos also plumb the Godzilla catalogue for their filler, too: there the 1983 Symphonic Fantasy No. 1. The Naxos recording of the Sinfonia Tapkaara falls short by some way in terms of depth, neither is the Russian orchestra quite as disciplined as its Tokyo counterparts. If the Naxos was a stopgap, this release offers a keeper. The Russian orchestra also features a rather ugly vibrato on the French horn. Vibrato on the horn is not necessarily a bad thing, but here it sounds rather tasteless and even uncontrolled.
The short encore from Battistoni and his forces is ‘Godzilla vs. Kingghidorah’ from the symphonic fantasy Godzilla, a work that offers a cornucopia of Ifukube’s music for the Toho Godzilla films. It is perfectly judged. It would appear that Ifukube had something of a double life, with one foot in cinema the other in more serious concert works, and was equally proficient in both.
While Morihide Kattayama’s booklet notes try just that little bit too hard to find correlatives between the two composers on this disc, they are nevertheless informative.
So where next? As you might have gathered, perhaps not to Naxos, even if that disc also offers the Ritmica ostinata for piano and orchestra. Instead, try an early BIS disc of Japanese orchestral music, the Malmö Symphony Orchestra under Jun'ichi Hirokami, which offers a bracing performance of Ifukube's vibrant and exciting Ballata Sinfonica (1943) in a performance of the utmost élan and a recording of terrific presence. The piece is joined on that disc by works from Karen Tanaka, Yuzo Toyama, Atsutada Otaka and Kaoru Wada.