AKUTAGAWA: Rapsodie per orchestra. Ellora Symphony. Trinita Sinfonica.
New Zealand Symphony Orch/Takuo Yuasa, cond.
NAXOS 8.555975 (B) (DDD) TT: 54:09

STRAVINSKY: Apollo. Agon. Orpheus.
London Symphony Orch/Orchestra of St. Luke's (Agon)/Robert Craft, cond.
NAXOS 8.557502 (B) (DDD) TT: 77:45

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 simply Apollo; 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.

(June 2005)