AKUTAGAWA: Ellora Symphony / Trinita Sinfonica / Rhapsody (Andrew Walton/ New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/ Takuo Yuasa) (Naxos: 8.555975)
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Yasushi Akutagawa (1925-1989)
Rapsodia per orchestra Ellora Symphony Trinita Sinfonica
After over two hundred years of isolationism, Japanopened its door to foreign countries in the 1850s andrapidly promoted modernisation, which covered almostall fields, including a complete reform of the Japanesestyles and vocabulary to conform to translations fromOccidental languages. This movement gave birth to newstyles of Japanese literature, in which the new Japaneselanguage was used under the influence of Occidentalliterature. One of the leading figures of the trend wasRyunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), who is wellknown for his short stories, which were based onancient Japanese fables, rewritten for modern readers.
His short story Yabu no naka (In the Bush) was filmedby Akira Kurosawa, under the title Rashomon, one ofthe classics of Japanese cinema. Ryunosuke killedhimself while still in his thirties, leaving a note of hisfeeling of 'vague anxiety about the future' of himselfand of Japan. This incident marked the beginning of theDepression and the war, and is still remembered bymany Japanese people.
Ryunosuke, who was born and bred in Tokyo, hadthree sons. The oldest son Hiroshi became a great actorof Shingeki, a new theatrical group born in the processof westernization, famous for his Hamlet andappearances in many films, including Kurosawa'sDodesukaden and Nagisa Oshima's Night and Fog ofJapan. The second son Takashi was killed in Burmaduring World War II. The youngest son Yasushi, whowas only two years old at his father's suicide, became acomposer. As a child, Yasushi listened eagerly to hisfather's collection of records, and particularly lovedStravinsky's L'Oiseau de feu and Petrushka. He startedstudying the violin and during his days at the AnnexedHigh School of Tokyo Higher Normal School (nowTsukuba University) decided to become a composer. Hestarted piano lessons before entering Tokyo MusicSchool (now the Music Department of TokyoUniversity of Fine Arts and Music) in 1943, in the war.
His first teachers there were Hermut Fellmer, who wasinvited from Germany, Qunihico Hashimoto, who hadstudied with Egon Wellesz in Vienna, MidoriHosokawa, who had been a pupil of Franz Schmidt inVienna, and Kan'ichi Shimofusa, who studied underHindemith in Berlin. Akutagawa had particular affinitywith Hashimoto, a lyrical, urbane melodist, whosequalities Akutagawa shared. Towards the end of thewar, when educational possibilities were limited,Akutagawa was sent to the army band with many otherstudents and saw the end of the war there in the summerof 1945. He returned to the school and studied withAkira Ifukube, who joined the faculty after the war and,having spent his early years in a remote region in thenorthern part of Japan, had an idiosyncraticcompositional style based on ostinato made up of briefmotifs. The lessons with Ifukube were blessings toAkutagawa, as he was strongly influenced byStravinsky in his childhood.
After graduation in 1947, Akutagawa made hismark as a composer with two orchestral works writtenin a characteristic style, where Hashimoto's lyricismand Ifukube's dynamism meet: Trinita Sinfonica (1948)and Music for Symphony Orchestra (1950) [Naxos8.555071). Success brought immediate popularity. Hewas the son of a great writer, good-looking, proficient inboth writing and speaking, politically determined andactively energetic. From then until his death,Akutagawa continued to attract public notice as aleading figure not only in music but also in generalculture. His compositional work extended to a variety offields, with an opera, symphonies, ballets, orchestralpieces, chamber and piano music, songs for solo voiceand for children, commercials and variousorganizations, marches for wind band, music for somehundred films, radio broadcasts and plays. He formed agroup 'The Three' with his friends Ikuma Dan andToshiro Mayuzumi, and their activities led the Japanesemusic scene in the 1950s. He played an important r??lein managing the Japan Society for ContemporaryMusic, JFC (The Japan Federation of Composers, Inc.)and the Suntory Music Foundation. He also assumed thepost of director of JASRAC (The Japanese Society forRights of Authors, Composers and Publishers). With amission to promote wider knowledge of classical music,he led the 'Utagoe-Undo', a kind of public singingmovement, in the 1950s, and conducted one of the mostskilful amateur orchestras, the New SymphonyOrchestra, from the 1950s until his late years, withoutaccepting any fees, in order to draw a clear line betweenthe commercialism of professional musicians and theamateur. From the 1960s he appeared often in weeklytelevision and radio programmes as conductor andpresenter, as well as publishing books on music. In the1980s he became the central figure of the antinuclearmovement. After his death from cancer his influentialand busy life was commemorated by the Suntory MusicFoundation, with the foundation of the AkutagawaAwards for Composers.
Akutagawa's creative life falls into three periods,1947-1957, 1957-1967, and from then until his finalyears. In the first period, he strove to bring together therhythmical energy of Stravinsky and Ifukube, with thelyrical style of Hashimoto, finding a solution in thesocialist realism of the Soviet Union, in the work ofProkofiev, Shostakovich, and Kabalevsky. A result ofthis synthesis came with his Trinita Sinfonica andMusic for Symphony Orchestra, as well as SymphonyNo.1 (1955) and Triptyque for String Orchestra (1953).
From 1954 to 1955, he spent six months visiting theSoviet Union and China via Vienna, and built up strongties with the two nations. In the Soviet Union he metShostakovich, Khachaturian and Kabalevsky, and hisTriptyque received a number of performances inCommunist countries. In China he met Ma Sicong andJiang Wenye, and performed his works with theShanghai Symphony Orchestra. After returning toJapan, he continued his cultural exchange with the twonations, and conducted various works by Prokofiev andShostakovich, giving the first performance in Japan ofShostakovich's Symphony No. 4. He also made friendswith Shchedrin and Khrennikov, and in Japan wasassociated with left-wing parties in the labourmovement, with which his 'Utagoe-Undo' had a closerelationship.
In the second period Akutagawa turned away fromhis earlier style, influenced by new avant-garde trendsin Japan. Japanese composers combined new techniqueswith the Japanese traditional sense of beauty, wheresilence, intervals and noises make sense. This avantgardemovement was promoted by Toshiro Mayuzumiand Toru Takemitsu, the former a member of 'TheThree' and the latter for long a good friend, one of thecircle around Hayasaka, the composer of the score forRashomon. Feeling that music with clear melodies andrhythms was becoming old-fashioned, he started tochange his musical language. With his Ellora Symphony(1958) and some other works, he leaned towardschromaticism, atonality and dissonance. His chamberpiece Nymbe (1959) is based on microtonality, while hisopera Orpheus in Hiroshima (1960), with a libretto onthe bombing of Hiroshima by Kenzaburo Oe, featuresSprechstimme for vocal parts, supported by vagueorchestral sonorities generated from tone clusters. In hispointilliste Music for Strings (1962), dedicated toTakemitsu, a post-Webern style and Japanese beauty ofsilence and intervals are combined. Akutagawasuggested replacing the conventional western method ofcomposition, where selected notes build up the entirety,with an oriental method, where all the notes are playedfirst into chaos, and then notes are selected and cut out.
He called this method 'Minus Music'.
This did not last long. In his third period,Akutagawa returned to his starting- point, although anumber of techniques were modified and avant-gardemethods were occasionally used. 'Music is for allpeople', he