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Ohki: Symphony No 5 "Hiroshima" / Yuasa, New Japan PO

Release Date: 10/31/2006 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8557839   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Masao Ohki
Conductor:  Takuo Yuasa
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 52 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

OHKI Symphony No. 5, “Hiroshima.” Japanese Rhapsody Takuo Yuasa, cond; New Japan PO NAXOS 8.557839 (52:05)

Like many other Japanese composers of his generation, Masao Ohki (1901–71) was raised with a strong grounding in traditional music—specifically, in his case, the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), which his father taught him to play and which remained an important influence on him throughout his life. Unlike a number of his peers, however, Ohki Read more remained steadfastly nationalistic, both musically and politically, even after his introduction to and eventual immersion in Western classical music. In fact, it is ironic that Ohki used the idioms of Western classical music to express his belief in the economic and cultural oppression of all of Asia by the forces of European and American colonialism.

The two works herein, which (according to Naxos) are receiving their world premiere recordings, represent the contrasting perspectives of Ohki’s compositional attitude. The Japanese Rhapsody (1938) has an optimistic, populist appeal reminiscent of, in its own way, an Aaron Copland score like Rodeo or, perhaps, Malcolm Arnold’s various British Isles dance suites. Based on folk and dance tunes incorporating traditional pentatonic scales, its insistent rhythmic motifs (frequently punctuated by percussion—the timpani really get a workout) emphasize the music’s dance roots through a spirited opening, a brief, shimmering pastoral episode for strings, and a re-energized, rousing conclusion. The Fifth Symphony, however, as might be expected by its subtitle, is a dark, contemplative, philosophical work. Composed in 1953 (eight years after the city’s bombing, and coinciding with the end of the American occupation of Japan), its six inner movements were inspired by six paintings by Iri and Toshi Maruki (the score’s original title was The Hiroshima Panels ), framed by a Prelude and Elegy. Programmatic, though not strictly propagandistic, the music reveals Ohki’s skill for scene painting and atmospherics, from the hazy, blurred, shifting harmonies underlying the second movement (“It was a procession of ghosts.”) to the more illustrative depiction of fire (the third movement: “Next moment fire burst into flames.”) and rain storm (the fifth movement: “All of a sudden black rain poured over them and then appeared a beautiful rainbow.”), which may call to mind similar sounds from Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky (think Firebird ), and Debussy. Ohki’s handling of dynamics, gesture, and orchestration is musically effective and engaging, and some of the scoring—especially the bleak, severe string effects that emerge in the fourth (“People walked around seeking water.”) and seventh (“Atomic desert: boundless desert with skulls.”) movements—anticipates Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima , composed six years later. The most impressive movement, however, is the closing Elegy; twice as long as any of the previous movements, it is built around wandering chromatic string counterpoint (similar to the opening of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste ) as it revisits earlier themes meant to symbolize foreboding, innocence, and destruction. Program annotator Morihide Katayama suggests that for Ohki, the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima was not only physically devastating, but also symbolized the ongoing oppression of the peasant and working classes, and relates that Ohki’s final work, in 1970, was “dedicated to the Vietnamese people who fought against imperialist America.”

Veteran conductor Yuasa doesn’t exaggerate the score’s unusual sonorities, perhaps striving for balance and consistency throughout the work’s eight disjointed movements. I can imagine an ideal performance that is more aggressive and illuminating; nevertheless, even with these reservations I found Ohki’s Fifth Symphony to be evocative and thought provoking, though I wonder what effect it may have on Japanese listeners familiar with the music’s source materials and artistic inspiration, especially those who lived through the bombing and its aftermath. The composer obviously intended this to be something more than a purely musical experience.

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Works on This Recording

Japanese Rhapsody by Masao Ohki
Conductor:  Takuo Yuasa
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1938; Japan 
Venue:  Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo, Japan 
Length: 12 Minutes 57 Secs. 
Notes: Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo, Japan (05/01/2005 - 05/02/2005) 
Symphony no 5 "Hiroshima" by Masao Ohki
Conductor:  Takuo Yuasa
Orchestra/Ensemble:  New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1953; Japan 
Venue:  Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo, Japan 
Length: 39 Minutes 8 Secs. 
Notes: Sumida Triphony Hall, Tokyo, Japan (05/01/2005 - 05/02/2005) 

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