Akutagawa: Ellora Symphony, Etc / Yuasa, New Zealand So

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As a result of his varied activities inside and outside the concert hall, as composer, conductor of professional and amateur ensembles, lecturer on television and radio, author of books on music, and a visible supporter of the anti-nuclear movement, Yasushi Akutagawa (1925–89) might be considered the Japanese equivalent of Leonard Bernstein. Thanks to Morihide Katayama’s thorough program notes, we learn that Akutagawa’s compositional career can be divided into three periods: early, in which he attempted to integrate the rhythmic impulses learned from his main teacher, Akira Ifukube, with a lyrical strain identified with another teacher, Qunihico Hashimoto (who himself had studied with Egon Wellesz in Vienna), while also absorbing musical influences from Russian composers like Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and Shostakovich (he conducted the Japanese premiere of the latter’s Fourth Symphony); middle, exploring avant-garde tendencies as Akutagawa aligned himself with fellow composers Toru Takemitsu and Toshiro Mayuzumi; and late, attempting a populist combination of elements from the first two. Helpfully, on this disc we are given one work illustrating each of these respective periods.

Listening to these attractive works, however, one can hear commonalities that run consistently through Akutagawa’s music—a rhythmic vitality, colorful orchestration, and ability to paint a mood, all of which may be attributed to Akutagawa’s childhood love of Stravinsky’s early ballets. Occasional echoes of The Firebird and The Rite of Spring emerge and quickly recede—so quickly, in fact, that they sound less like an influence and more like a brief, subconscious, unattributable memory. Much more substantial, primarily in the earliest of these compositions, the Trinita Sinfonica (1948), is the post-Stravinsky Russian influence. There is a playful tone and flair unheard in the later works, especially in the jubilant roller-coaster finale, and a hint of dark undercurrent to the otherwise romantic flow of lullabies in the slow second movement.

Even though the Ellora Symphony (1958), a product of Akutagawa’s exploratory period, was originally designed to allow an aleatoric re-ordering of its 20 (now reduced to 15) concise movements from performance to performance, the alternately tranquil passages and turbulent outbursts (heavy on percussion) contain a motivic and symbolic unity that keep their dramatic logic intact. Built from Akutagawa’s primary compositional method of manipulating small units, each movement’s close-knit intervallic motifs represent masculine and feminine characteristics. Katayama states that the symphony is “a hymn to primitive reproduction,” but the fantasy and power of the music—especially those Stravinskyan ostinatos—suggest sources and a setting more mythic than merely primitive.

From the period of his greatest popularity, the Rapsodia (1971) fluidly mixes these propulsive rhythms, via small energetic units and ostinato figures, with long-lined counterpoint and tone painting. Despite his occasional use of indigenous dance melodies and pentatonic scales, if these three works are typical, Akutagawa’s compositions contain less specific Japanese musical references than many of his contemporaries. But his fluency in the mid-century modernist vocabulary—especially in the hands of an experienced conductor like Yuasa—makes his music worthy of attention.

Art Lange, FANFARE


Product Description:


  • Catalog Number: 8555975


  • UPC: 747313597529


  • Label: Naxos


  • Composer: Yasushi Akutagawa


  • Conductor: Takuo Yuasa


  • Orchestra/Ensemble: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra



Works:


  1. Ellora Symphony

    Composer: Yasushi Akutagawa

    Ensemble: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Takuo Yuasa


  2. Trinita sinfonica

    Composer: Yasushi Akutagawa

    Ensemble: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Takuo Yuasa


  3. Rhapsodia per Orchestra

    Composer: Yasushi Akutagawa

    Ensemble: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

    Conductor: Takuo Yuasa