AKUTAGAWA: Rapsodie per orchestra. Ellora Symphony.
New Zealand Symphony Orch/Takuo Yuasa, cond.
NAXOS 8.555975 (B) (DDD) TT: 54:09
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STRAVINSKY: Apollo. Agon. Orpheus.
London Symphony Orch/Orchestra of St. Luke's (Agon)/Robert Craft, cond.
NAXOS 8.557502 (B) (DDD) TT: 77:45
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Yasushi Akutagawa (1925-89) was the third and youngest son of an esteemed
short story writer whose fable, “In the Bush,” was the subject
of Akira Kurosawa’s world-praised breakthrough film Rashomon. The
father, however, committed suicide at the age of only 32, citing “vague
anxiety about the future,” just a year before the Great Depression
that led to World War 2. His eldest son, Hiroshi, became a celebrated
actor both onstage and in films that included Kurosawa’s Dodesukaden.
The middle son died as a soldier in Burma in 1944, but Yasushi became
a composer, influenced as a child by recordings of Stravinsky’s
Fire-Bird and Petrushka.
His early teachers had German backgrounds as pupils of, respectively,
Egon Wellesz and Franz Schmidt. But it was Akira Ifukube who exerted
the strongest influence. Yasushi’s earliest successes were ballets
and, in 1948, Trinita Sinfonica – the final work on this disc,
which reflects visits to the Soviet Union where Stalin had influenced
the output of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Kabalevsky – saucy parodies
of capitalism in particular. Back in Japan Akutagawa became allied with
Ikuma Dan and Toshiro Mayuzumi (who finally gave up composition to become
a classical disc-jockey!), a group later joined – and quickly dominated – by
Toru Takemitsu, whose early embrace of Webernism became part of Akutagawa’s
middle-period music of 1957-67. From this came Ellora Symphony, based
on a visit to the first-millenium rock caves, 20 altogether, carved out
in India by three different religions.
Their explicit eroticism, indeed pornographic art, inspired Ellora
Symphony - originally a 20-movement work from which the composer
subtracted three, and combined two more into one. It is the 16-movement version that Takuo Yuasa conducts – music
that sounds less avant-garde than it must have when new, but remains
impressively sonorous nonetheless, although “melody” as such
hardly figures in the work’s swift-moving sequence of movements.
Although featured on the jacket, Ellora is the middle work, followed
by the Trinita. The disc begins with a 15-minute work from his final
period, Rapsodia, completed in 1971, which Valery Gergiev has programmed
several times. The composer described it as “music in which a sorcerer
waves his short wand,” with a huge outburst at the end, just when
a lullaby seems to have overcome the orchestra.
Akutagawa was not a composer of major stature internationally although
the Japanese retain great respect for him. What can best be made of his
music, Yuasa succeeds in doing with the New Zealand SO, and the recording
is full-blooded, almost to an extreme in heavily scored passages. The
disc is part of a “Japanese Classics” series on Naxos, and
from Morihide Katayama’s excellent program notes one deduces at
least the second to date of Akutagawa’s music. Commended in other
words to curiosity seekers who seek repertory off the beaten path.
Naxos is also in the process of reissuing remastered recordings that
Robert Craft conducted, especially during the ‘90s. The latest
couples “Three Greek Ballets” by Stravinsky: the 1947 revision
of Apollon musagètes, composed 20 years earlier, retitled
the sublimely sorrowing Orpheus of 1946-47,and Agon,
his final ballet, begun in 1953 but not completed until 1957, by which
time he had embraced
12-note music, albeit Webern’s rather than that of Stravinsky’s
Hollywood neighbor, Arnold Schoenberg, who had died in 1951. The first
and second are played by the London Symphony, as if by rote in Apollo,
better in Orpheus (but will Sony ever give us Stravinsky’s
Chicago Symphony Orpheus without one’s having to buy the
entire Stravinsky disc-oeuvre on that label? It remains unique
in the composer’s
old-age conducting canon). The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, recorded
in Albany, plays Agon with something like ferocity and is the
prize on this disc, although musically not, how to put it, ingratiating? These
are “games” to the death, as it were.
R.D. (June 2005)