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CD Feature/ Koscak Yamada: "Nagauta Symphony/InnoMeiji/Maria Magdalena"

img  Tobias

I hope this doesn’t sound cynical, because I honestly believe that Hollywood movies like “The last Samurai” and more Independent productions such as “Ghost Dog” have awakened a healthy interest in Japanese history. The former flick especially, a hearty dose of sentimentalism notwithstanding, paints a powerful picture of the country’s mid-19th century’s society and inner conflicts. The work of Koscak Yamada picks up the thread right where Tom Cruise left it. Yamada was son to a Samurai and subjected to the first signals of Western culture through military bands and church hymns in his childhood village near Tokyio. His oeuvre reflects the multipolar nature of Japan, its eagerness to adapt and progress as well as an obsession to hold on to its deep-rooted values. Representative and incisive, this collection of three of Yamada’s pieces makes for an excellent overview and introduction.

Interestingly, the CD follows a reverse chronology, starting in 1934 and ending in 1916, when the composer had fled the dangers of World War I and returned home in a bid to establish a symphonic orchestra, an opera company and a dance ensemble from scratch. The last track here, the “Choreographic Symphony Maria Magdalena” subsequently dabbles in all of the aforementioned fields, keen to work both as a deeply romantic orchestral fantasy and as a ballet of sorts – even though shimmering timbral colours rather than rhythm are predominant here. Only at around the ten minute mark, the string section sends agressive, circling impulses, but they soon collapse into an outburst of percussive prowess. “Maria Magdalena” is a piece of many different shades and scenes and yet it never sounds torn-apart or overly eclectic for its own sake. All of these works, in fact, evoke comparisons of a single breath, of long tension archs and of a story, which runs through various strands but never looses sight of the main plot.

This is especially obvious in the “Nagauta Symphony Tsurukame”, an adaption of a Classic Japanese art form, the Nagauta, for large-scale orchestra.The seventeen minute long singular movement is the symphonic equivalent of song, contuining to run on the same themes for its entire duration. The characteristic sound of the Shamisen and the traditional chant remain in their original state, while the symphonics add space and grandness to the music: A remarkable composition, which never once sounds forced. Sandwiched in between these two we find what possibly constitutes Yamada’s most popular piece, the “Inno Meiji” Sinfonia from 1921, an unreal bacchanal dreamstate, which bathes in soft waves of sound. An airy introduction in the undulating upper register of the strings slowly leads into a thematic conflict between Eastern and Western motives in the middle section, which culminates in a repeated tragicomical melody played on the Hichiriki, a traditional wooden flute with a sound akin to a muted trumpet. “Inno Meiji” was written in a period of intense flirting with the Soviet Union and its artists and which included conducting the Japanese debut performance of Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 1”.

Next to his work as a composer, Yamada was also active as a writer and had to take care of the activities of his symphonic orchestra. Maybe it all got too much for him. He suffered a cerebral haemorrhage in 1948, which all but put his creative output to an end until his death in 1965. His influence may not have been very tangible in the West, for his oeuvre is still a stranger to most concert halls. And yet, it seems as though his synthesis of two different worlds has done quite a bit to foster the huge interest of 21st century Japan for Western Classical Music. A man who had to build his own world in the face of a lack of structures and understanding – it almost sounds like a perfect Hollywood story.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Naxos Records

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