YASHIRO: Piano Concerto (1962). Symphony (1958).
Hirmoi Okada, piano; Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
Naxos 8.555351 (B) (DDD) TT: 59:34

Sushi and goulash. Akio Yashiro (1929-1976) stands with Mayuzumi and Takemitsu as the leading proponents of musical Modernism in Japan. To some extent, Mayuzumi and Takemitsu aimed at an integration of Western technique and Japanese "soul." Yashiro, deeply influenced by hard moderns like Bartók, Messiaen, and perhaps even Jolivet, did his best to reproduce their kind of music, and I myself find very little evidence of Japanese culture, other than the drive to Westernization, in his work. These pieces could have come from Paris, Budapest, Rio de Janeiro, or New York. This says nothing about their quality, only that their national origin is largely beside the point.

The workmanship astonishes me. One has only to listen to the piano concerto's opening to realize that Yashiro plays Bartók's game at Bartók's level. That is, he builds an exciting first movement over a long span based on two tiny ideas (so small, you can't really call them themes) and makes powerful music besides. The concerto is one of those pieces that grabs the listener in the opening bars and never lets go. One hears echoes of Bartók's first concerto in Yashiro's, but it's more a matter of mood than appropriation. The second movement opens with a master stroke. The soloists plays a C in an irregularly rhythmic ostinato for quite a long time, as the orchestra laments. The ostinato then switches to the orchestra as the piano takes up the lament. The ostinato is seldom absent from the movement, and it climaxes on the timpani and then on the piano in octaves. Yashiro courts the obvious danger of boring overstatement but manages not just to fend it off, but to build almost fevered tension and let it off with grace. The finale, a rhythmic orgy, reminds me a bit of the last movement of Ginastera's first concerto, also influenced by Bartók and written in the previous year. I strongly doubt that Yashiro directly lifted anything. They simply share a Bartókian world. The concerto comes to a fiery end, and I can't of anyone actually sitting still throughout its length.

The four-movement Symphony, written in the composer's late twenties, has the craft but not the assurance or the laser-like focus of the concerto from just four years on. It comes down to a lackluster first movement. One hears many of the same devices in the symphony as in the concerto, but to less effect. For example, the symphony's opening movement uses an ostinato against an "orchestral singing"—similar to the concerto's second movement. However, neither the ostinato nor the singing involves you as in the later work. Indeed, the symphony picks up only at the eruption of the manic second-movement scherzo (based on the first-movement ostinato, incidentally). Obviously, Yashiro keeps a tight rein over the motific argument, and the argument crosses movements. The liner notes, by Morihide Katayama, are extremely helpful here. What's missing from the first movement is a reason to care. The third-movement Lento, however, is downright gorgeous, with sumptuously voiced strings and brass, as well as lean bits for contrast. This is probably my favorite track on the disc. The Bartók allusions haven't the usual prominence, and one hears a vigorously individual poetry as well as great craft. The finale takes the "brood-and-explode" strategy of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. I'd expect too much to ask for the power of that masterpiece, but Yashiro still manages to generate a lot of heat in individual episodes. I miss, however, a continuous drive in the material. Too often the music winds down and then restarts. Still, I'm judging Yashiro by the standard he himself has set. This symphony would grace many a catalogue.
Okada plays like a master in the Bart_ian concerto, bringing to mind such eminences as Sandor, Fischer, and Nadas. Under Yuasa, the Ulster Orchestra sounds crisp and powerful without over-inflation, without the Guy-Lombardo-like sweetness one usually got from Bryden Thomson. The most I can say for them is that they make me want to hear more Yashiro. Overall, a winner of a CD.

S.G.S. (September 2003)