TAKASHI YOSHIMATSU: Stellar Dream Dances; Sei-Gen-Fu; Wind Dream Dances – Nanae Yoshimura & Noriko Tamura, 20-string koto/Pro Musica Nipponia cond. by Yasuaki Itakura/Remi Miura, sho/Kifu Mitsuhashi, shakuhachi – Camerata CMCD-28116 (Distr. by Albany), 64:45 ****:
Composing in European-style classical music forms is a rather new thing for Japan. There was a brief time in the later 16th century when European music was acceptable in Japan, but then the doors were closed until the second half of the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1921 that a Japanese composer created the first work for a European-style orchestra. He had studied in Berlin, as had most of the earlier Japanese classical composers. Most of them draw on the traditions, music and even specific instruments coming from traditional Japanese music, or Hogaku. This is often synthesized with various sorts of Western music in an interesting blend of East/West. Only a few Japanese composers have evolved a unique style of their own, of which Takemitsu is probably the best known.
Sugata, who lived until 1952, studied with two Japanese composers who had been trained in Berlin in the Germanic style of concert music. His Symphonic Overture was inspired by Hindemith, and the short Dancing Girl excerpt comes from a work redolent of Rimsky-Korsakov. The longest work on the disc is the ballet The Rhythm of Life, which puts a Japanese twist on primitive rhythms and themes from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – to the point of actually quoting some of the original in the work. All but the Dancing Girl are world premiere recordings. Pretty exotic stuff indeed.
Yoshimatsu is a prolific composer supporting the “new lyricism.” Early in his career he played in rock and jazz bands. He is the “Composer in Residence” at Chandos Records, who have issued several of his symphonic works. The three works on the Camerata CD are concerned with the composer’s relationship with traditional Japanese musical instruments such as the koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi. He writes that he had problems composing for such instruments since each one had rhythms, functions and timbres completely different from one another. He somehow broke thru this standoff in a way I don’t fully understand – using an approach he characterizes as “Let’s play and dance with the Japanese musical instruments.” Yoshimatsu uses irregular meters and modes and isn’t afraid to write passages which deviate completely from a particular instrument’s traditional functions, giving them a new musical life in the concert hall.
The 20 short selections that make up these three dance-based suites variously make use of the 20-string koto, the shakuhachi and the sho (Shinto flute) as soloists. Both suites of Dream Dances do have a generally dreamy quality that takes one into a different place than traditional Japanese folk or imperial music. The Pro Musica Nipponia chamber orchestra has over 60 members and has been involved in other concerts blending traditional Japanese instruments with the Western orchestra. The few other Camerata label CDs I have in my collection have been of exceptional sonic quality, and this one is no exception.
– John Sunier