After a promising spurt half a dozen years ago, Naxos's 'Japanese Classics' series has slowed to a glacial pace recently. This 2012 release of Qunihico ('Kunihiko' in the more usual Hepburn romanisation) Hashimoto's Second Symphony is the only one since the end of 2010. Hashimoto's First Symphony appeared ten years ago, so this is a tardy follow-up.
It is all change from the first disc: different orchestra, different conductor, different audio. The good news is that performance and audio standards were high in the first one and they remain high in the second. Whilst Ryusuke Numajiri and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra give a strong account of the physically demanding First Symphony, the Tokyo Geidai Philharmonia - whose precursor gave the Japanese premiere of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in 1918 - seem to revel in the anachronisms of the Second under Takuo Yuasa's expert guidance.
'Japanese Classics' has brought audiences, among other things, many fine symphonies. Fine specimens include those by Matsumura (8.570337), Ohki ('Hiroshima', 8.557839), Yamada (8.557971) and - one of Hashimoto's pupils - Akio Yashiro (8.555351). Hashimoto's pair, conventional though they undeniably are, can safely be added to their number.
The First Symphony is a huge work, but as a musical celebration of 2600 years of Japanese history, it could hardly be otherwise! The first movement is something of a potpourri, the maestoso flow oddly interrupted about halfway through by a marching band. The second movement ends in tuneful but noisily rousing style, whilst the third movement is almost quaint in its bucolic Englishness! It is, overall, an attractive, romantic symphony, much more European or even American than Japanese, and a work that leaves the listener wondering how Hashimoto ever gained a reputation as a vanguardist.
The idea, promulgated in some reviews of this disc when it first came out, that Hashimoto's symphony incorporates some distasteful jingoism, is frankly risible. He wrote both symphonies for official public occasions and any nationalistic passages are more than counter-balanced by the strongly Occidental character of these works overall. In a similar way, the Symphonic Suite from Hashimoto's fourth ballet, Heavenly Maiden and Fisherman
, fuses Japanese and predominantly European parts into a convincing précis.
The two-movement Second Symphony is the "crowning achievement of Hashimoto's later years", according to the accompanying notes. Commissioned to mark Japan's new constitution after its world war bludgeoning, Hashimoto completed it shortly before cancer cut short a life that would surely have had a memorable second half. The work is astonishingly conservative, frequently sounding something like Grieg, but that also means it will be enjoyed by generalist audiences for its melodious colours and emotional straightforwardness. This is especially true of the first movement, which has a glorious 'good times' feel - no wonder it was also known as the 'Celebration' Symphony.
The most profound of the three works on the newer disc are the Three Wasan
. These Buddhist 'chant hymns' are not chant-like, and not particularly religious- or even Japanese-sounding, other than in their texts. The orchestral score might be characterised loosely as 'Mahler-if-British', whilst deep baritone Akiya Fukushima inflects the sung words in a way that is oddly reminiscent of Russian.
All works so far are unsurprisingly premiere recordings. The remaining Scherzo con Sentimento
, has, according to Naxos, been done before - presumably in its original guise as the second of the composer's Three Characteristic Dances
for string orchestra (1927). Neo-Classical after a fashion, the Scherzo again combines European and Japanese colours, the latter most noticeable in the pentatonic melody and koto-like harp appearances. Sometimes there seem to be flashes of Beethoven - no bad thing! The title is almost a misnomer: the 'scherzo' element is minimal, whilst there is only limited scope for playing 'with feeling', at least in any specialised sense.
Sound quality is good throughout, but on the more recent disc engineers have been very enthusiastic with regard to volume, pushing decibels to the limit in places and thereby flirting with distortion. The Three Wasan
recording, presumably done on another day, is more sensibly levelled.
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