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ClassicsOnline Home » OHZAWA: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Symphony No. 2
Hisato Ohzawa, one of the foremost Japanese composers of the first half of the twentieth century, studied in the 1930s in Boston and Paris. This second Naxos disc of his music features two works premièred by the composer in Paris. As with many of his other works written in the 1930s, Piano Concerto No. 2 combines elements of jazz, impressionism and Japanese-style melodies. Scored for a large orchestra including triple winds, celesta and a variety of percussion, the Symphony No. 2 has the character of a Concerto for Orchestra. The highly original second movement is made up of four independent parts: two arias and two toccatas, played alternately, with each part requiring a soloist or soloists.
By Steven Ritter
By David Denton
Born into a prosperous Japanese family in 1907, Hisato Ohzawa had a most impressive list of musical mentors in both the United States and Western Europe and included Schoenberg, Sessions, Nadia Boulanger and Dukas. Though reminded by many of them that he was Japanese, he chose to be influenced by the music of the French Impressionists to an extent that his music became entirely reliant on their style that he updated by the era of Honegger. He was a gifted orchestrator and certainly knew how to create the structure of a concerto and symphony, his one drawback being a lack of immediately memorable thematic material. He was, of course, not alone in that problem, and he has the advantage of a likeable musical character, the concerto progressing in long flowing lines with sufficient technical hurdles to interest the virtuoso. Winner of major competitions, the Russian pianist Ekaterina Saranceva, plays with flair and clarity, and with that feel of long-term familiarity. That would equally apply to the conductor, Dmitry Yablonsky, who gets conscientious playing from the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, his strings strong and precise in articulation, the brass warm and round to match the Frenchness of the symphony.
Hisato Ohzawa (1907-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 • Symphony No. 2
Hisato Ohzawa was born into an affluent family in the Japanese port city of Kobe on 1st August 1907. His early musical experience was through hymns and the organ at Sunday school, and in piano lessons from his mother. In 1921 he entered the High School of Kwansei Gakuin (West Japan College), one of the main American mission schools in Japan. There he joined the choral society and also played the piano and the organ as accompanist. From the third year, he assumed the posts of director, conductor and accompanist of church music for the school. From the early 1920s he also began to take piano lessons from the Russian pianist Alexander Lyutin and the Spanish pianist Petro Villaverde, both living in Kobe. Leaving high school, Ohzawa went on to the College of Kwansei Gakuin, studying economics, while vigorously continuing his music activities. In addition to conducting the college orchestra and choir, he founded the Kobe Oratorio Society outside the school and performed a variety of works for chorus and orchestra, including his own pieces. In 1929 he played and conducted Mozart and Haydn piano concertos in Osaka.
Ohzawa initially concerned himself with various music fields, but a concert by the French pianist Henri Gil-Marchex in 1925, with the latest works by Milhaud, Honegger and Poulenc, in addition to music by Debussy and Ravel, inspired an interest in composition. Immediately after graduating from Kwansei Gakuin College in 1930, he left for Boston to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional composer, entering Boston University and New England Music School, where he became a pupil of Frederic Converse and enjoyed contact with members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted on occasions, with his own compositions played and broadcast. His activities in Boston were supported by William Cameron Forbes, ambassador to Japan from 1930 to 1932, to whom he had been introduced by Converse. In 1933 Ohzawa began to study at Malkin Conservatory in Boston with Schoenberg and his assistant Roger Sessions. In the same year, he acquired the degree of the Bachelor of Music at Boston University.
Ohzawa’s compositions from this period include the gigantic Symphony No. 1, Piano Concerto No. 1, Double Bass Concerto, dedicated to Serge Koussevitzky, Urashima for cello and orchestra, Little Symphony for two wind instruments and string orchestra, Piano Quintet, String Quartet, Piano Trio and Sonatina for piano. These works are generally modernistic in style, reflecting the neo-classicism of Ravel, the expressionism of Schoenberg and Bartók, the polytonality of Milhaud, toccata-like music by Prokofiev, jazz, and Japanese pentatonic scales, all closely interwoven like a kaleidoscope.
A period of travel followed, first in the United States, then, in the summer of 1934, to London, where Ohzawa made friends with John Blackwood McEwen, Arthur Bliss, Adrian Boult, and others. In the autumn of 1934 he moved to Paris, where he tried, as he had done in London, to make preparations for his future activities and to complete his studies.
Carrying a letter of introduction from the United States, he had lessons from Nadia Boulanger, who advised him to remember that he was Japanese. He also attended the class at the École Normale of Paul Dukas, who warned him against modernism, advice he later remembered. In Paris Ohzawa made friends with many musicians, including composers such as Roussel, Florent Schmitt, Honegger, Ibert and Tansman, the critic Henri Prunière and the pianist Gil-Marchex. On 8th November 1935, about a year after he had come to Paris, Ohzawa held a Franco-Japanese symphony concert at the Salle Gaveau, using his own money and with the support of the Japanese Embassy. In the concert he conducted three works of his own, written in Paris, with Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte and Menuet antique, and Berlioz’s King Lear Overture. This was the first instance of a Japanese composer performing his own works with an orchestra in Paris, one of the music capitals of the world. The programme of the concert carried an authoritative preface written by Prunière, who had thorough knowledge of traditional music in the Orient, as well as of the latest news of Japan through his contact with Alexander Tcherepnin and his position on the jury of the Tcherepnin Prize for Japanese orchestral composers. On this occasion Ohzawa performed his Piano Concerto No. 2, Symphony No. 2 and Une Voix à Sakura, a song with orchestral accompaniment.
Piano Concerto No. 2 was written in Paris in the spring of 1935. In this work, as in many of his other works written in the 1930s, various elements of neo-classicism, jazz, expressionism, impressionism and Japanism are reflected. The concerto is closely related to the preceding Symphony No. 2 in various aspects, including its main motifs. The instrumentation is for an orchestra with irregular double winds. The first movement Allegro, written basically in G minor, has three main motifs. The first of these, which is made up of two quavers descending from D to C (major second), is initially offered by the orchestra. The second motif is presented by the piano. In contrast to the first motif, which features a narrow interval of a major second and impulsive rhythms, this second motif is characterized by many octave leaps over a wide range, suggesting jazz improvisation. Immediately after that, the brass and the strings play the third motif, accompanied by the cymbals beaten with the sticks. The opening pattern of this motif is the same as that of the first motif (the major second descending from D to C), and is followed by a broad pattern slowly ascending an octave. The three main motifs are treated very freely and make up a kind of sonata form. The development section is opened with the strings’ fugato based on the third motif. In the recapitulation, which is transfigured considerably, various types of sub-motifs are generated from the first and the second motifs. The second movement, Andante quasi adagio, coloured by Japanese-style melodies, carries an introduction, where the solo piano predicts the main theme, reflecting a combination of classical music, jazz and Japanism. After the introduction, followed by a one-bar jazzy episode on bassoons and trombones, the piano presents the main theme, which is based on a Min’yo scale (E - G - A - B - D, often found in the folk-music of Japanese peasants and fishermen) and suggests an elegy sung at night by a singer who has come to a city from the countryside. The theme is transfigured and developed in a variety of patterns, interspersed with subordinate elements in the mood of Japanese ancient children’s songs. The Quasi presto finale expresses the basic character of this concerto most boldly of the three movements: a melting pot of neo-classicism, jazz, Japanism, Orientalism, chromaticism and polytonality. As the composer himself called the movement “gigue,” it is actually ruled by a gigue-like syncopated main theme in 6/8. There are two cadenzas for the soloist and the movement closes brilliantly on C. The concerto was dedicated to Henri Gil-Marchex, the soloist for the première.
Symphony No. 2 was written in Paris between October and December 1934. The instrumentation consists of an orchestra with triple winds, celesta and a variety of percussion. In many places the orchestra is treated as a collective body of independent parts, rather than as a single mass, and each part is contrasted with the other. Although the work bears the title “symphony”, it has the character of a concerto for orchestra. As in the Piano Concerto No. 2, Ohzawa’s basic idea for the work is more concertante than symphonic. Here too the composer favours dizzy alternations of various elements. The first movement is basically written in classical sonata form with an Andante introduction which opens with a mystic melody on muted violins divided into three parts, accompanied by chords on the celesta. In the Allegro main part, the horn suggests the first theme, treated by various instruments successively. The bassoon presents the second theme, its melody based on a Ritsu scale consisting of G - A - C - D - E, which contains two minor thirds (A - C and E - G). This second theme, fusing into strange rhythms of accompaniment, soon comes to a climax and fades away into the development section. The trumpet recalls the first theme in the recapitulation, where the first theme is treated more aggressively and more wildly. The second theme appears on the upper range of the viola, in a more nervous guise than in the exposition. Then the motto and the two themes, as well as all the melodic and rhythmic elements, reappear towards the coda. The second movement is constructed in a very peculiar way, as it is made up of four independent parts: two arias and two toccatas, played alternately. That fact that each part requires a soloist or soloists shows that it is probably an imitation of the slow-fast-slow-fast design of the fourmovement concerto grosso in the style of the baroque sonata da chiesa, or that it is written in the neo-baroque style found in works by Stravinsky, Hindemith and Martinů. The last movement, Capriccio alla rondo, is opened by a fanfare on two muted trumpets, accompanied by rolls of the snare drum. This fanfare, starting with a descending minor third (E flat - C), contains many minor thirds both vertically (harmonically) and horizontally (melodically). The oboe and then the violin plays the theme, which is reached by slightly changing the minor third-based motto of the introduction of the first movement. As a kind of matrix, this theme gives birth to a lot of motifs, making up a capricious rondo.
The Paris concert created a great sensation, giving rise to favourable critical comment. Ohzawa returned to Japan in 1936 in high spirits, but the concerts of his works held several times in Tokyo and Osaka between 1936 and 1938 were not received favourably, as both the symphony and the concerto were technically and conceptually too difficult for the Japanese audience and orchestras of the day. To compensate for that, Ohzawa immediately wrote Symphony No. 3 and Piano Concerto No. 3 (Naxos 8.557416), only to receive the same kind of response. Ohzawa was too advanced for Japan. He was, however, not entirely discouraged, as he was basically willing to work abroad, and had already built up strong connections in Boston, London and Paris in order to continue his activities. His Symphony No. 3 had its première in Japan in 1938, and was to be performed in Paris, but the plan had to be changed, as the Sino-Japanese War, which had broken out in 1937, was becoming protracted, against most people’s expectation. In 1939 a major war began in Europe too, and the relationship between Japan and the United States was deteriorating. Ohzawa’s way to Europe and America was thus closed.
Ohzawa began to spend much of his time composing and performing music for radio, film and revue. He was waiting for his chance, while working in accordance with the demands of the day. After the war, with Japan under American occupation, he worked vigorously as a conductor, composer and arranger for big band jazz and light music, making use of his experience of study in the United States. In great demand by film companies and broadcasting stations, Ohzawa led a hectic life, dying suddenly on 27th October 1953. As a composer of big band jazz and popular song he was sorely missed, although no one would remember his glorious reputation in his Paris days in the 1930s. The reassessment of his music in Japan has only begun recently with these Naxos recordings.
English Translation: SOREL, edited by Naxos
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OHZAWA: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Symphony No. 2