Review By Hecht,American Record Guide,April 2007
Masao Ohki (1901-71) was born in a provincial city in central Japan where there was no influence of Western music. His early musical outlet was Japanese traditional music and the shakuhachi, a bamboo flute that produces breathy tone and shaky pitch. His first encounter with Western orchestral music was' in high school when he heard Beethoven Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. In 1921 he took a job as an engineer and imposed vocal music until he was so frustrated by the limitations of Japanese singers working in a foreign language that he moved to a larger city, took a teaching job, and decided to become a composer for orchestra. He moved to Tokyo to work under Giichi Ishikawa, to study theory and the music of Tchaikovsky (his main model), other
In 1938 he wrote Japanese Rhapsody (1938) to express the optimism of the Japanese people, who were going to spread their wings in Asia" (from Morihide Katayama's notes). The work is based on two Japanese folk themes and reflects the influence of Stravinsky's Firebird and Petrouchka as well as primitivism. The piece sounds like "Japanese Copland" in many places, though Copland seems less an influence than the result of a synthesis. The Rhapsody is an episodic work, tied together by a Japanese fanfare motto. There is a march, music redolent of the Pacific Islands, and a Coplandish "Japanese cowboy" passage, with the whole thing ending in an enthusiastic percussion orgy. Japanese Rhapsody is not the most sophisticated work I've heard and runs on repetitively for a minute or so too long, but I can't entirely resist "Japanese Copland".
In 1939 Ohki won first prize in the Felix Weingartner Competition, but the war cancelled plans for Weingartner to conduct Ohki's music in Europe. During the war, he wrote patriotic works. Later he dabbled in socialism and efforts to free Asia of colonial oppression from the West. When Japan was defeated, he turned first to Buddhism then back to socialism, this time out of concern for oppression of the working classes.
Ohki's response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was his Fifth Symphony (Hiroshima) in 1953. The work was inspired by the Hiroshima Panels by Iri and Toshi Maruki. "The paintings, rich in subtle shadings, corresponded to Ohki's inclination to 'cloudy' sonority", wrote Katayama. The result was an eight-movement symphony that added a Prelude and Elegy to the six Panels. It made a deep impression in Japan and established Ohki as a "left wing composer fighting against imperialism". He would eventually visit North Vietnam and the Soviet Union, where the Hiroshima Symphony was performed several times and may have influenced composition after the 1960s. Okhi dedicated his last symphony, Vietnam, to the Vietnamese in their war against the Americans.
The Hiroshima Symphony is in mostly atonal language without the influence of folk music, though there is a spiritual element from the Japanese Noh plays. Katayama describes it as "characterized by chromatic melodies in narrow ranges, dissonant harmonies, tonecluster-like sounds generated by the accumulation of semitones and special effects by strings and wind". It ranges from eerie to bleak to stormy (mainly the explosive clusters). I know very little music by Ligeti, but the more eerie parts of Hiroshima remind me of what I have heard. Some might think it "difficult" from this description. On the contrary, it is an expressionist piece that is cinematic in its images and moods.
The Prelude introduces most of its elements. The names of the interior movements go a long way toward describing the work: 'Ghosts' is a procession of ghosts depicted by treading low strings with ominous trumpet fanfares in the background; 'Fire' is depicted by storm music set in a higher register than usual with shrieking downward chromatic scales; 'Water' produces bleak contrasts, with extreme registers painting eerie clouds above and burdened, exhausted seekers trodding below; 'Rainbow' has a cloud formed by a chordal outburst before a high, creaky violin solo evokes a ghoulish rainbow; 'Boys and Girls' has a winding flute melody producing the children's calling out to the emptiness of a dark string melody; and in 'Atomic Desert' screechy high string harmonics and piccolo create a whistling wind, and intervening clusters seem to picture skulls. 'Elegy' alternates a dark Bartokian string passage with thundering chords in the low brass and percussion, signifying morbid sadness, terror, and finally, a burst of tutti and percussive anger.
This symphony employs a common array of modern techniques that convey emotional and geographical devastation well enough to reward repeated listening. It stands well alone but would be a terrific sound track to a movie about atomic devastation or Hiroshima itself.
The New Japan Philharmonic is splendid. The sound is wide, open, and deep-just what the piece calls for.