Saturday 8 March 2014

Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra give first rate performances of orchestral works by Kazuo Yamada on a new release from Naxos

In the pre-war period, the Japanese composer and conductor, Kazuo Yamada (1912-1991), refused to publish any of his earlier orchestral works, a decision that led to his becoming known purely as a conductor. However, he was one of the few Japanese composers able to write full-scale orchestral music as well as being a writer of songs in the style of twentieth century French composers.

In 1931, Yamada had joined the piano department of the Tokyo Music School, studying with Leo Sirota (1885-1965), composition under Mahler’s pupil, Klaus Pringsheim (1883-1972) and conducting under Joseph Rosenstock (1895-1985).

Yamada made his début as a composer in 1937, when his work Prelude on a Japanese Folk Song took first prize in an orchestral music competition held by the radio station, JOAK, now known as NHK (Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai). He made his conducting début in 1942 when he was appointed full-time conductor of the Japan Symphony Orchestra, from which he created the present-day NHK Symphony Orchestra in collaboration with Hisatada Otaka (1911-51).

From 1953, Yamada taught conducting at the Tokyo University of the Arts and, as a conductor, introduced major works from abroad as well as world premières of Japanese works. Yamada’s compositional style reflects diverse influences from Richard Strauss to Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith and twentieth century French music. He always expressed interest in avant-garde methods of the day but his most significant influence was the music of Mahler, an interest that was passed to him during his time studying with Klaus Pringsheim.

A new release from Naxos  brings four of Yamada’s orchestral works dating from between 1937 and 1944, thus giving us a good cross section of his orchestral output. The Russian Philharmonic Orchestra  is conducted on this new disc by Dmitry Yablonsky.  


A Song of Young People – Little Symphonic Poem (1937) was written as a protest against what Yamada considered the trend of facile exoticism in Japanese music. It was premiered at the Japan Seinen-kan, Tokyo in February 1938.

A sudden outburst of energy at the start precedes a slower romantic theme with some lovely writing for woodwinds, including the saxophone. This is music of a very Western nature with little in the way of Japanese influence. It is full of drama and orchestral colour, though I was struggling to hear any direct influences. It is the saxophone that leads the music, after many moments of drama, towards its hushed coda. Whilst a little rambling at times this is, nonetheless, an attractive work.

Kiso (Old Japanese Melody), Op.12 (1939) is in two parts, the first a pastoral Obako (Maiden or young woman) that uses a folk song from the Tohuku district and the second Kiso-bushi, a folk song from the Kiso region in the Nagano prefecture. Delicate percussion and a bass drum open the piece with a clarinet soon joining in an attractive theme that has Japanese intervals. Yamada also uses the saxophone again, very affectively and varies the music considerably, thereby avoiding too literal a Japanese flavour. The music soon rises to a brief climax but falls in a lovely interlude, so delicate, with flute and percussion. Rumblings of timpani are heard together with side drum taps as the music moves into part two, Kiso-bushi, a faster, forward moving theme nicely picked out by various sections of the orchestra, with mild Japanese dissonances. There is a lovely section shared by the various woodwind instruments before the bass drum and a tambourine help push the music forward. Yamada effectively pushes his theme around so many parts of the orchestra, almost in the manner of a concerto for orchestra. It is the masterful orchestration that keeps the interest from flagging as the work progresses, rather than his development of material.

Symphonic Suite ‘India’ (Spellbinding) (1940) is in four movements with the first, Moderato, opening with a flowing, Japanese sounding melody with pizzicato strings lightly pointing up the theme. A tam-tam sounds quietly as the music gently flows in an undulating theme before the second subject arrives, more rhythmic and underpinned, at first, by a piano. The music rises becoming more dynamic as it goes along. Despite the work’s title, midway, there is an unashamedly Japanese motif before the music rises again, heading for the end that comes with a quieter wistful theme.

A flute melody opens the second movement, Animato, with something of a mysterious feel before a hovering upward motif for strings appears. The music quietens as the piano enters, followed by various solo strings. Slowly the music rises as the theme becomes more insistent before quietening at the end. An oboe and flute hold the melody in the opening of the Larghetto con moto, a gentle melody that is soon given over to the flute alone, underpinned by the piano.

In the opening of the finale, Rubato tempo marcato, an incisive motif is repeated by the orchestra before the rhythmic theme is given over to various woodwind. The full orchestra soon pushes the insistent theme ahead. There are quiet moments where little woodwind and brass motifs appear, before the orchestra moves the music to a galloping coda for the strings.

Brass, redolent of Mahler in his fifth symphony, open Grand Treasure (the Emperor’s people), Op.20 (1944). The brass feature heavily until the music falls to a melancholy, plodding theme for strings that again recalls the trauermarsch (funeral march) of Mahler fifth symphony. The brass of the opening re-appear before the trauermarsch returns in a more flowing style, surely a pointed reference to Japan’s situation at the time and, indeed personal losses. These themes are developed, becoming more impassioned with the anxious strings, so Mahlerian in flavour.

Eventually the music descends to a quiet, thoughtful moment for bass clarinet before the strings slowly take over, leading to more passionate music. There is much drama before the music falls to a hushed section, soon joined by the brass. The music rises again yet falls to a quieter, mournful variation of Mahler’s trauermarsch, so affectingly done. Though the music again rises, with brass and bass drum, it then simply fades as though running out of strength.

Commissioned by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, it was premiered in a radio performance by the Japan Symphony Orchestra in January 1945. For all its overtones of Mahler, I found this a genuinely inspired and passionate work.

Dmitry Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra give first rate performances of this music and it receives an excellent recording. This is a fine opportunity to hear Japanese orchestral music from this earlier period. There are informative booklet notes by Professor Mari Saegusa of Tokyo University of the Arts from which I am grateful to have been able to quote.

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