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Art Lange
Fanfare, April 2007

If you're a film buff, you've probably heard music composed by Humiwo Hayasaka (1914-55) even if the name is unfamiliar; among his many soundtracks are those to director Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai and Rashomon. According to program annotator Morihide Katayama, Hayasaka served as organist in a Catholic church in Sapporo when he was 21, and thus his formative studies in Western classical music focused on Gregorian chant - in which he found similarities to traditional Japanese melodies and modes - as well as Satie, Stravinsky, and, naturally, Debussy. Throughout his life he was active in societies and organizations that promoted new music, collaborating with composers like Akira Ifukube, Yoritsume Matsudaira, and even the young Toru Takemitsu, and by the 1950s he adapted into his music elements of atonality alongside traditional Japanese influences. His death at age 41 was the result of a long battle with tuberculosis.

Hayasaka's unconventional approach to blending Eastern and Western sources energize these three scores. The Overture, entered into a competition celebrating the Japanese Imperial Year 2600 (1940), is part-bolero and part-march, constructed from pseudo-Japanese motifs (avoiding actual pentatonic modes and folk quotations) and building to a rousing conclusion - very much like something from a John Williams film score, decades before the fact. Ancient Dances (1941), on the other hand, is a lyrical fantasy based upon the juxtaposition of "right" and "left" symbols drawn from Nature, dance, society, and music, alternating between traditional and classically derived phrases.

Most curious, however, is Hayasaka's two-movement Piano Concerto (1948). Beginning with a slow, somber, Brucknerian introduction of brass and winds intoning over droning strings, the first movement proceeds through a series of dark, morose episodes that inspire a dour, Rachmaninoff-like piano commentary. (Annotator Katayama reveals this movement is a requiem for the composer's brother and other victims of war.) By way of shocking contrast, the fanfare that opens the second movement kicks off a brisk, playful romp with more than a few echoes of Gershwin (there's a rhythmic figure right out of An American in Paris) and Shostakovich in his lighter moments, fueled by crisp, lilting piano filigree, deftly whipping several traditional Japanese modes into a cosmopolitan froth. Yin and Yang indeed.

Naxos's yeoman conductor Yablonsky and his orchestra provide convincing performances, and pianist Okada smoothly negotiates the challenging, if incongruous, moods that the concerto tosses his way. If you're curious about mid-century Japanese composers, especially the various ways they reconcile traditional and European resources, Hayasaka offers something out of the ordinary.

Brian Burtt
MusicWeb International, November 2006

The Naxos label began, literally and figuratively, as a marriage between East and West. German businessman Klaus Heymann found himself in Hong Kong starting a classical music recording label. One of its first successes was the recording of “The Butterfly Lovers Concerto,” a work in a Western classical genre composed by Shanghai music students Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. Heymann’s wife, Takako Nishizaki, was the soloist. More recently, Naxos has embarked on series of both Japanese and Chinese classical music.

It can be hard to keep up with everything Naxos is doing. It is easy, especially, for composers so completely unknown, at least in the West, to escape notice of a Western listener and reviewer. We should, however, take notice of Humiwo Hayasaka. He had a short life, dying at age 41 from a long bout of tuberculosis. In his short life he fought numerous obstacles in order to maintain his passionate drive to compose music. Hayasaka had to leave school at age 16 in order to support his siblings after his father’s departure and mother’s death. Yet he maintained contact with the young musicians and ideas, as if missing out on conservatory training were a minor hindrance. He sought to combine new trends from the West — the work of Debussy, Ravel, Satie, and Stravinsky foremost — with ancient Japanese forms and scales, and even a strong dose of Gregorian chant. Like Malcolm Arnold, he earned his living — in Hayasaka’s case, for most of his adult life — by writing film music. While working for the nascent Japanese industry, he — again, like the Brit — still prolifically composed concert music.

Hayasaka’s Piano Concerto is, quite simply, a great work in late Romantic style. Though influence by Ravel’s Concerto for Left Hand, its bravura style and lush, dark orchestration are redolent of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. It is a work fully qualified to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in such august company. The first movement is somber, serving as a requiem for the composer’s dead brother and more generally as an elegy for the values of the past. The second movement, however, launches into rollicking dancing. According to the composer, “I intended to combine modern mobility with the innocent epicurean character of Oriental people, a little different from Occidental humour.” The result is a virtuosic perpetuum mobile.

Pianist Hiromi Okada is as new to me as the composer. The notes indicate that he is the leading exponent of contemporary Japanese piano music. It is easy to hear why. He has the strength and speed that virtuosity demands, while maintaining a clear shape to the work’s architecture and properly inflecting (but not overinflecting) each phrase. Yablonsky and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra might seem unlikely companions, and perhaps Oriental, as opposed to Occidental, forces would more strongly articulate the specifically Japanese features that Hayasaka put into the work.

The Ancient Dances on the Left and on the Right - named after a traditional Japanese dance integrating many forms of Asian music - sounds a bit like the short orchestral or film music of Shostakovich; they even have occasional Orientalisms in common. Hayasaka sees this as a concert work, though, so it maintains a coherency of drama and musical story that can elude the Russian’s more populist works. The Overture in D is a fine example of its genre, an insistent, rousing piece that could have come from the pen of Khatchaturian. The composer claimed that “this is an attempt at bolero form.” While there is no sense of the Spanish, there is a similar sense of relentless drive to the end.

This is a disc that I expect to return to often. Those interested in a great late-Romantic-sounding piano concerto, and a couple of very good orchestral pieces on the side, should get this. I hope Naxos records more Hayasaka. I also hope that some adventurous programmer will consider getting this audience-friendly music into the world’s concert halls.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, October 2006

Hayasaka’s claim to fame rests currently on his 1950s film scores for Kurosawa’s Rashomon and The Seven Samurai. In fact he wrote about a hundred scores for the cinema. There are chamber and concert works too including the fifty minute symphonic suite Yukara written four months before his death as well as Movement in Metamorphosis for orchestra (1953), String Quartet (1950) and Seventeen Pieces for piano (1941).

He was born in Sendai, North Japan and after falling on hard times moved to Sapporo. Orphaned, he had to go out to work. In his own time he studied music and developed a proselytising performing interest in twentieth century music.

His two movement Piano Concerto (I 22:22; II 10:19) was premiered in Tokyo on 25 June 1948. The long first movement is broodingly contemplative and poignantly melodic. There are echoes of Rota and Rachmaninov. The writing displays a sumptuous romantic tendency with a sense of gentle cinematic longing winding though its pages. This rises at the end to a briefly pummelling intensity and fades back into nostalgic quietude. The shorter second (and last) movement is light-hearted recalling elements of Milhaud and Gershwin with an occasional romantic aside. It’s all very attractive.

In the Concerto there are only wispy hints of what we may recognise as typical traditional Japanese music; not so with the Ancient Dances on the Left and on the Right. The title and the writing have their origins in courtly Gagaku a subset of which is Bugaku – orchestral music accompanying dance. The Ancient Dances make prominent use of percussion including gong and bass drum. The cast of the writing assigned to the woodwind is also instantly recognisable to Western ears as oriental. This is music that conveys mystery and ceremony.

The Overture is a symphonic march with nationalistic elements as in the Ancient Dances but with a more outgoing and even jaunty character. Do not be surprised if you catch yourself thinking of RVW’s March of the Kitchen Utensils from the music for Aristophanes’ Wasps. The march theme is repeated Bolero-like each time dressed in new orchestration.

Hayasaka was friendly with another Japanese composer, Akira Ifukube (1914-2006) whose music can be heard on Naxos 8.555071 and 8.557587. A predilection for corny marches demonstrated by Ifukube’s 250 plus film scores – and especially Godzilla (1954) – can also be heard in Hayasaka’s Overture in D.

This is a well documented disc that is too easily lost in the torrent of new releases. That would be a pity as the music is attractive in a rather conservative way – especially the Piano Concerto.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, October 2006

Here's some distinguished concert music from a Japanese composer better known for his many film scores, including such greats as The Seven Samurai. The piano concerto is atypical; it consists of only two movements and opens in most restrained fashion with a very moving elegy for the victims of World War II. Humiwo Hayasaka creates a sound world all of his own by combining western modal elements with ancient Japanese imperial music, which is known as Gagaku. Apparently he greatly admired Maurice Ravel whose influence is apparent at several points, particularly in the piano writing. The concluding movement is a spirited rondo which sounds much more Japanese, but has a bouncy almost nursery-tune like thematic simplicity quite reminiscent of Francis Poulenc's concertos. Curiously enough one of the recurring motifs in this work bears a strange resemblance to the familiar Old Hundredth hymn tune. Ancient Dances on the Left and on the Right could be considered a ritual ballet based on Bugaku, which is a type of Gagaku that also involves dance. The sinistral numbers, which are associated with the sun and the emperor, are rather serious, formal sounding affairs. The dextral ones, which are identified with the moon and the people, are much more upbeat. The program ends with an overture that was written in 1939. It's like no other you've ever heard and consists of a march that's repeated with Bolero-like insistency. It may remind some of the stirring triumphal music Alfred Newman wrote seven years later for the film Captain from Castile. Well performed and recorded, this interesting Japanese music makes for a most desirable disc of discovery.

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