Naxos has more or less cornered the market when it comes to introducing classical music by Japanese composers, offering high quality recordings of fine performances of musical works otherwise well nigh impossible to come across. This CD, featuring three later pieces by Yamada Kosaku (1886-1965, here oddly transliterated Yamada Koscak) is certainly no exception. A pivotal figure in Japan's musical history as the country's first homegrown classical composer, Yamada Kosaku deserves attention both on these terms and by the simple fact that he composed just plain excellent music in its own right. And if the prior CD Kôsçak Yamada: Symphony in F major 'Triumph and Peace' showcased Yamada's early promise, this CD demonstrates his work at its mature peak.
The first selection is the latest chronologically: Yamada's "Nagauta Symphony" of 1934. This is a surprisingly successful synthesis incorporating a traditional nagauta piece of 1857 whose shamisens and drums oddly coalesce with a western orchestra. At first, one might be tempted to construe this as a transitional form, but such is not the case. The idea of combining the two musical traditions was in fact a highly unconventional one difficult technically to pull off--and due to his own particular musical upbringing, traditional Japanese music was about as "exotic" to Yamada as it would be to the average American. So this is in fact a creatively eccentric composition on his part. The next piece, "Sinfonia 'Inno Meiji'" (1921) is a more straightforwardly classical piece more typical of Yamada, a long and winding symphonic poem (somewhat in the line of Richard Strauss) at times patriotically stirring and others movingly melancholy, commemorating Japan's recent tumultuous history during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Here then is a good representative example of Yamada the public, national composer. Finally the choreographic symphony "Maria Magdalena" (1916-1918) shows us a younger Yamada at work on a more personal level, enthralled as he was by Wagnerian operas and Russian ballet. This is an unabashedly Romantic piece with straightforwardly definite Germanic roots, sweeping and dramatic.
The liner notes for this album are extensive as is dependably usual for Naxos, and they do a wonderful job of introducing the composer along with his life and career before describing the date and occasion of each track and analyzing it in musicological terms (along with a translation of the lyrics heard in the "Nagauta Symphony"). In this as in everything, Naxos caters to the committed music lover. And with an important but somewhat underexposed composer like Yamada Kosaku, this kind of attention to detail is especially warranted. If, as Mikhail Glinka said, a nation creates music and a composer only arranges it, then Yamada would be Japan's arranger par excellence. And with this fine CD, we can at last give him a well-deserved listen.