MATSUMURA: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; To the Night of Gethsemane – Ikuyo Kamiya, p./ RTÉ National Symphony/ Takuo Yuasa – Naxos

by | Nov 30, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

TEIZO MATSUMURA: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2 for piano and orchestra; To the Night of Gethsemane for chamber orchestra – Ikuyo Kamiya, piano/ RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/ Takuo Yuasa – Naxos 8.570337, 60:50 ****:
Japanese composer Teizo Matsumura (1929-2007) had a life fraught with trials that he apparently overcame triumphantly, given the quality of the music on this disc. According to the booklet notes, the program doesn’t even include Matsumura’s most popular and critically acclaimed work, his Piano Concerto No. 2. I’d certainly like to hear that sometime, but meanwhile, this CD, one in Naxos’ Japanese Classics series, is an impressive entrée to the work of a composer that every enthusiast of contemporary music should hear.
Matsumura was born in Kyoto, into a family of kimono merchants, losing his father to cancer at the age of ten. As a teenager he was bowled over by a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony played by Arturo Toscanini, and this impelled him toward a musical career. In 1949, he moved to Tokyo, where he sought the help of composer Yasuji Kiyose, who prepped Matsumura for the entrance exam required by the Tokyo University of the Arts. He passed with distinction only to be denied entrance because a mandatory medical exam revealed he was infected with tuberculosis. Over the next five and a half years, Matsumura convalesced, finding endless time to write Haiku; practicing this highly disciplined art form influenced him to try to capture the “primitive energy directly rooted in the very origins of life,” as well as approach music with “an Asian mindset.”
He felt he had arrived at this place with the composition of Achime (1957), a work scored for soprano, percussion, and eleven instruments, which he came to regard as his Opus 1. The Symphony No. 1 of 1965 is representative of the music of this period in his creative life. Instead of the development of themes or the exploitation of tone rows, Matsumura’s symphony appears to work from brief musical cells, expanding them dynamically and rhythmically, often together with oscillating ostinato figures issuing from the large battery of percussion he employs. I can’t say that it sounds radically different from the music of other composers of the ‘50s and ‘60s working in, or working away from, Darmstadt School–era serialism, and yet the symphony does have an obvious individuality—and is overall a pretty gripping piece of music.
Matsumura’s Second Symphony came thirty-three years later, in 1998, and it clearly represents a different aesthetic stance. Note writer Koichi Nishi speaks of it as representing a more “flexible” style, and this translates to music that doesn’t shy from tonality, doesn’t rely very much on ostinatos, and seems more attuned to Western-style thematic development than to an organic process in which music seems to expand ever outward like the symphonic equivalent of the Big Bang Theory. The difference is underscored by the inclusion of a prominent obbligato role for the piano, whose quiet, tonal ruminations are varied and expanded by the more stentorian orchestra. There’s something of the contest between piano and orchestra that happens in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The result is a very different approach to the symphony than Matsumura essayed in his First; both symphonies are effective and satisfying in their different ways.
An even greater degree of “flexibility” and rapprochement with the West comes in Matsumura’s last orchestral work, To the Night of Gethsemane, a musical evocation of Giotto’s The Kiss of Judas. The earthshaking nature of that betrayal is conveyed in music that has the same kind of organic expansiveness of the First Symphony, yet with a greater sense of direction, as well as a clear sense of drama and pathos. It sounds as if Matsumura had found his way back to the early twentieth-century atonal Expressionism of Schoenberg by way of the Asian mindset he embraced. This is a strong, compelling work, though it lacks the originality of the two symphonies.
While I have nothing to compare these performances with, they sound very authoritative. Takuo Yuasa, who has made quite a few recordings for Naxos, many in its Japan Classics series, is especially effective in contemporary music and has a natural affinity for music of his compatriots. I’ve sampled several of the offerings in Naxos’ series, and the current issue is easily one of the best, and that includes its recorded sound from the National Concert Hall in Dublin.
—Lee Passarella