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Hosokawa solo 0015095KAI
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Toshio HOSOKAWA (b. 1955)
“Haiku” for Pierre Boulezto his 75th birthday for piano (2000/2003) [3:49]
Spell Song for oboe (2015) [4:42]
Small Chantdedicated to Mr Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi for his 70th birthday for violincello (2012) [5:00]
2 Japanese Folk Songs for harp (2003) [8:37]
Extasis for violin (rev. version 2020) [9:41]
Voice for trombone (2020) [7:13]
Edi for clarinet (2009) [6:22]
Senn VI for percussion (1993) [10:01]
Klangforum Wien
rec. August 2020, Mozart-Saal, Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna, Austria
Reviewed as a digital download from Kairos
KAIROS 0015095KAI [55:30]

In 2021 the Austrian ensemble Klangforum Wien released a series of five albums that were inspired by the limitations imposed by the Covid lockdowns. Each album focuses on solo works by one contemporary composer, and all 23 members of the ensemble contribute at least one performance. This album features works by Toshio Hosokawa, one of the most well-known and recorded Japanese composers after Takemitsu. It is difficult to avoid comparing the two composers. Hosokawa has frequently expressed his gratitude and admiration for Takemitsu, and one can hear some similarities in their music – for example a fascination with silence and empty space (known as ‘ma’ in Japanese culture), or the tendency to write a kind of music that seems to stay in one place, more like painting than film. However, the differences between the two are equally apparent. Takemitsu, especially in his later works, is more lyrical, while Hosokawa’s style is often more wild and abrasive – a puncturing of silence.

This difference is made obvious from the very first chord. Haiku (for piano), originally written for Boulez’s 75th birthday, consists of a series of sforzando chords that stab at the silence. The piece seems to resemble the structure of a haiku, each chord corresponding to a word in a haiku poem. It is shorter and more straightforward than some of the other works on the album, and serves as an arresting introduction to his music.

The metaphor Hosokawa has repeatedly used to describe his music, and which features prominently in the booklet, is that it is a “calligraphy of space and time, taking the form of sounds.” The next two pieces, Spell Song (for oboe) and Small Chant (for cello), exemplify this. In Small Chant the furious musical gestures are like brush strokes. Then there is pause and contemplation, followed by ethereal high glissandi (almost like a theremin) that perhaps represent the finer strokes, until the music finally disappears quietly into the highest pitches of the cello. It is a particularly effective work.

The next two pieces, arrangements for the harp of two Japanese folk songs, could not be more different. Despite beginning with a curious effect in which the harp sounds more like a snare drum, they could be described as “accessible” works, rich in harmony and song. This is still Hosokawa, however; the music is reflective and slow, and we hear familiar gestures, such as series of notes that ebb and flow like waves, while staccato melody notes bounce across their surface like pebbles. (I find it impossible to avoid thoughts of nature when listening to this album.) The second song, ‘Lullaby of Itsuki’, is gorgeous and an unexpected earworm. After the melancholy notes of the song are plucked one last time in the bass, I suspect other listeners will search online, as I did, for the original folk song.

Extasis (for violin) begins relentlessly, with tremolos, glissandi and trills. Again, I hear the sounds of nature: breath, wind, birdsong, rain. And again we encounter the rapid series of notes that come towards and away from us like waves. As the title suggests, the beginning is ecstatic, but two-third of the way through the music quietens and the opening motifs are repeated with sadness. The violin then becomes unsettled – quiet tremolo on the high notes – and the earlier motifs are played again with a microtonal moan. The ecstasy gives way to exhaustion. Annette Bik gives an extraordinary performance.

Voice (for trombone) was written in 2020 for Klangforum Wien. The titles of three of the works on this disc make reference to the voice, and one can hear in the way Hosokawa writes that he is trying to evoke the human voice, from shamanic chant to breath to more traditional song. In the way it moans and growls and explores all sorts of timbres, making use of few notes and little harmonic change, Voice sounds like the kind of song you might expect to hear in Noh theatre – but even stranger (to this Westerner’s ears). I find it the most difficult work on the album, and after repeated listens I still do not know what to make of it.

Edi (for clarinet) is rather like a heavily ornamented version of Voice. There are, in essence, few notes, but here each note is almost a musical sketch in itself: the music focuses on one or two notes for a time – trills and grace notes abound – before moving on, until out of this strangeness a melody is heard. The music does not develop, at least not in any thematic sense; it is more like revelation, with all the mystery that entails. I find this one of the most exciting aspects of Hosokawa’s music.

The final and longest work, Sen VI, is for solo percussion. "Sen" means "line", as in the line made from a brush stroke in calligraphy. We hear this concept of “sen” in Sen VI: fingers scrape quietly against the skin of the drum, or a wetted finger slides across the drum to elicit pitched moans from the instrument. Though there is much silence in this work – the space between the lines – we also get a sudden stampede of drum, as well as three brief vocal exclamations, not again repeated: 'ah! 'oh!' 'ee'! Come the end of the album, I found myself wondering whether there were “two Hosokawas”: on the one hand there is Hosokawa the calligraphist – surely a very careful and disciplined art – and then on the other hand there is the free and wild Hosokawa, belonging more to the natural world.

All the works are convincingly and sensitively performed, and the sound is excellent. Hosokawa has his own peculiar and enchanting soundworld, represented in its more intimate form in these diverse works for solo instruments. Those who enjoy music of silence and intense reflection, somewhat akin to Takemitsu or Gubaidulina, should find much joy and interest in this album.

Steven Watson

Florian Müller (piano), Markus Deuter (oboe), Benedikt Leitner (violoncello), Virginie Tarrête (harp), Annette Bik (violin), Andreas Eberle (trombone), Olivier Vivarés (clarinet), Lukas Schiske (percussion)

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