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American Record Guide, August 2008

Isotaro Sugata (1907–1952) developed his interest in Western music while attending an American mission school. Full-time composition study followed the onset of tuberculosis in 1927 that forced him to abandon formal schooling. Sugata worked with several composition teachers in Japan, many of whom studied in Germany and were able to pass on the rigors of German technique. Another teacher, Meiro Sugahara, persuaded Sugata to study French composers, as well, claiming that French music’s flexible tonality and whole tones were better suited to the Japanese style than the stricter German major-minor model. But Sugata soon realized that while the French approach was well suited to small-scale works, it lacked the Germanic structure and discipline required for symphonies. He then turned to Klaus Pringsheim for help incorporating German music back into his arsenal. He ended up studying with so many composers that he became famous for an uncanny ability to write music in just about any style. His music was soon noticed, and he won a few prizes before World War II intervened and forced him to move to a provincial town, where he continued to study and compose. That move ended his career by putting him out of touch with the centers of Japanese music. By the time the war ended, Sugata’s works had disappeared from public notice, and he died before he could reestablish them. All his music was lost until discovered in his house in 1999. This is its first presentation since his death.

Symphonic Overture (1939) is based on Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler, though the opening’s quiet and contemplative tone reminds me more of the first movement of Noblissima Visione. After a speed-up in tempo, an oboe leads into the music after ‘Song of the Angels’ in Mathis der Maler. The oboe continues singing against a background of brass and strings that is brilliantly scored and almost pure Hindemith. A modal hymn leads to what sounds like a fugal (and Hindemithian) section for strings with Hindemithian punctuation in brass chords and a lively Hindemithian working of two themes in the full orchestra. (“Hindemithian” three times in a sentence is no redundancy.) After a hymn-like bridge, a fugue ensues in the strings at around the 12-minute mark, along with sprightly Hindemithian (four!) writing in the woodwinds. A passage reminiscent of the final fast music of Mathis and slower parts from that work follow. Then come some hijinks from Symphonic Metamorphosis (sort of) under a heroic theme in the brass. The theme takes over with more emphasis, and the work concludes with—what else?—a knock-off on the final chorale of the Mathis symphony. Symphonic Overture is broad daylight stealing, but it’s also a fine bit of musical engineering. If you like Hindemith, you’ll like it.

Stravinsky gets his turn in Rhythm of Life (1950). ‘Mysterioso’ opens with a creepy theme in the horns and moves on to quiet music from Firebird and the Rite of Spring, turned Japanese by pentatonic scales. A quiet passage from the Rite, a bit of Petrouchka, and more of the Rite takes us to the end. II begins with ‘Ritual Action of the Ancestors’ (Rite) until the Carnival scene from Petrouchka, colored by a pentatonic scale to sound Japanese instead of Russian, becomes the bulk of the movement. III begins in the quieter passages of the Rite before the opening salvo from Song of the Nightingale thrusts us into wild and colorful festivities, with rhythmic pentatonic dance themes. The music turns barbaric, complete with ripping trombone glissandos from Firebird. A few sharp chords from the Rite and a riff on the final chorale of Firebird, and Igor takes his leave.

Dancing Girl from the Orient is the fourth movement of Sugata’s Sketches in the Desert (1941) and sounds much like its title. This time Sugata calls in Rimsky-Korsakoff, Ippolitov-Ivanov, and Ketelbey. The result sounds Russian with a touch of Arabic.

Peaceful Dance of Two Dragons (1940) is the only Japanese-sounding piece here. The first two movements are ritualistic, like a processional, with repeated phrases based on a Japanese folk tune and heavy use of fourths, fifths, and pentatonic scales. I is rather somber; II follows suit but is more lively, aggressive, and colorful. III takes the same kind material to a more festive level. It ends quietly but not before a final lurch from the last sharp outburst from Rite of Spring.

Sagata is well served by the sensitive playing of the Kanagawa Philharmonic, and the sound is very good. Morhide Katayama’s notes are thorough and contain an interesting dilcussion of Japanese music.

Phillip Scott
Fanfare, August 2008

The “Japanese Classics” series on Naxos is bringing to our attention the work of many highly skilled composers. All active during the 20th century, their music may be completely Westernized with no obvious Japanese influence (like that of Abe and Ohzawa), or fuse ethno-musical characteristics with the Western avant-garde (like the better-known Mayuzumi). Occasionally, a truly great composer synthesizes his various influences into a uniquely individual voice (Takemitsu).

The case of Isotaro Sugata (1907–1952) provides a telling example of a talented musician in search of a style. His tale is worthy of Pirandello. So taken was he with the new works that he heard and studied, he virtually rewrote them…For lovers of 20th-century music, if only for a game of spot-the-influence, these are intriguing pieces. They are beautifully performed and recorded on this CD, making it another must-have in this compelling series.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, April 2008

…the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra is certainly impressive. Conductor Kazuhiko Komatsu’s attention to detail is superb, and he gives us magnificent accounts of Sugata’s exotic music.

John Sunier
Audiophile Audition, March 2008

Composing in European-style classical music forms is a rather new thing for Japan. There was a brief time in the later 16th century when European music was acceptable in Japan, but then the doors were closed until the second half of the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1921 that a Japanese composer created the first work for a European-style orchestra. He had studied in Berlin, as had most of the earlier Japanese classical composers. Most of them draw on the traditions, music and even specific instruments coming from traditional Japanese music, or Hogaku. This is often synthesized with various sorts of Western music in an interesting blend of East/West. Only a few Japanese composers have evolved a unique style of their own, of which Takemitsu is probably the best known.

Sugata, who lived until 1952, studied with two Japanese composers who had been trained in Berlin in the Germanic style of concert music. His Symphonic Overture was inspired by Hindemith, and the short Dancing Girl excerpt comes from a work redolent of Rimsky-Korsakov. The longest work on the disc is the ballet The Rhythm of Life, which puts a Japanese twist on primitive rhythms and themes from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—to the point of actually quoting some of the original in the work. All but the Dancing Girl are world premiere recordings. Pretty exotic stuff indeed.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2008

The story of Isotaro Sugata is one dogged by illness that saw his formal education terminated at the age of 20 when he became a victim of tuberculosis. He had been born into a wealthy Japanese family in 1907, and they were financially able to fund private compositional tuition. That did not always prove successful with influences that seemed to take him down paths not suited to his temperament, his first Germanic phase soon followed by a French-Russian period that eventually gave way to Schoneberg’s atonality. Several competition successes in Japan brought him recognition in the late 1930’s, only for the Second World War to intervene. The end of the conflict saw a further deterioration in his health, and he ‘retired’ to rural Japan where he continued to compose. Now separated from a major centre of music his output went unrecognised. It was only in 1999, forty-seven years after his death that his family found his manuscripts, and now his true standing is being revalued, this being the first disc of his music. All four works come from this final period when he returned to tonality. The Symphonic Overture from 1939 is a score that displays his cosmopolitan teaching yet owing to allegiance to no one. Without making any lasting impression on me it is very well constructed and instantly pleasing music with a slant towards Central Europe in the 1920’s. It was to win a prize in the NHK radio competition, and it would appear that this success led to the commission from NHK for the Peaceful Dance of Two Dragons, Sugata’s essay in the marriage of traditional Japanese music with his recent interest in the style of Stravinsky and Bartok. One could imagine it would make a very colourful ballet, the pictures needing the addition of visuals. The following year, 1941, he completed the Sketches of the Desert, a ‘Suite in Oriental Style’, and from that comes the Dancing Girl in the Orient, a rhythmically attractive final track of the disc. Of all the music offered here I would certainly commend to you the ballet The Rhythm of Life composed two years before his death in 1952. Here he returns to his early love of French Impressionist music with the additional fingerprints of early Stravinsky all over the score. Derivative it may be, but many working in the early part of the 20th century would have loved to write the sensuous score. Cast in three movements, Sugata was able to thread into the score Japanese influences that colour but never obtrude. It remained unheard until 2006 when it was first performed by the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra who are the excellent ensemble in this new disc. They are conducted by the long established and highly respected Kazuhiko Komatsu. The recording is a high quality sound product.

David Hurwitz, February 2008

This disc is a riot. Isotaro Sugata (1907–52) is a composer of such deliberate, shameless derivativeness that these very serious and often lovely works veer dangerously (and wonderfully) close to parody. The Symphonic Overture begins with Respighi in modal mode, then moves to a series of cribs from Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. It ends with the climax of that work’s first movement grafted onto the brass chorale that closes the finale. Both Peaceful Dance of Two Dragons and The Rhythm of Life shuffle Stravinsky’s Firebird, Petrushka, Rite of Spring, and Song of the Nightingale like a pack of cards (only with Japanese folk melodies, of course). It’s very disorienting, hearing the introduction to Part Two of The Rite suddenly give way to the fourth tableau of Petrushka, and so forth. Dancing Girl in the Orient could be by any Russian composer from Rimsky-Korsakov to Ippolitov-Ivanov. People unfamiliar with Sugata’s models can enjoy this colorful music on its own terms, but if you know the above-cited pieces at all well, that’s when the fun really starts. The performances sound very good, though the engineering is just a touch boxy in the treble. Still, I wouldn’t miss this disc for anything. It proves that imitation surely is the sincerest form of flattery.

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