Circulating Ocean

Composer Portrait – Toshio Hosokawa

Renka 1 [UK premiere]
Vertical Time Study 1 [UK premiere]

Toshio Hosokawa in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Tania Mandzy (mezzo-soprano) & Jorgen Skogmo (guitar) [Renka 1]; Christopher Richards (clarinet), Christopher Wright (cello) & Jue Huang (piano)

Arena, Royal Albert Hall, London

Prom 27

Circulating Ocean [UK premiere]
Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Symphony No.15 in A, Op.141

Christopher Maltman (baritone)

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Kazushi Ono


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 3 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

It is surprising that the music of Toshio Hosokawa (50 last year) has not made greater headway in the UK, as his fastidiously wrought but accessible music ought to have considerable appeal.

This Prom brought with it his orchestral work Circulating Ocean (2005). Premiered at last year’s Salzburg Festival (where it was conducted, interestingly, by Valery Gergiev), the piece transmutes into sound Hosokawa’s conception to water as creative substance: specifically, the process where it evaporates into cloud, becoming rain which pours down onto the ocean in time of storm – before renewed calm brings its further ascent, as fog, to the sky. This process is duly embodied in music which features lengthy and eventful crescendos at the opening and near the half-way mark – the first proceeded by evocative music initially for divided strings, and the second by retreat into an enveloping serenity.

Although a next-generation successor to Toru Takemitsu, Hosokawa’s music is informed by the greater expressive range of his teacher, the Korean-born Isang Yun, while the refinement and translucency of his music is very much that of a Japanese composer who has absorbed the thinking of the European avant-garde at length and on his own terms. If Circulating Ocean marginally failed to engage over its 23 minutes, this was less to do with its ideas than with the slightly too schematic way in which they evolved during its course: attractions being more evident in the parts than in the whole. Given its long association with Tadaaki Otaka, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales seemed thoroughly attuned to its evocative abstraction, and Kazushi Ono directed with the right measure of discreet conviction.

Those able to attend the earlier “Composer Portrait” were able to hear Hosokawa discuss his music frankly if hesitantly (clearly the interaction of Orient and Occident remains as vexed a question as ever), and sample further his music in the guise of two chamber works from earlier in his career. If Renka I (1986), with its stark but atmospheric haiku settings, was the more expressively immediate, then Vertical Time Study I (1992) breathed appreciable new life into the often moribund medium of the clarinet trio. Both pieces were sympathetically rendered by students from the Guildhall School of Music.

Mahler’s encounter with Oriental poetry was to be of decisive importance for his later works, but “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (1885) represents an earlier, innately European aspect of his music. Although often sung by a mezzo, the sentiments expressed here are very much from the male perspective, and Christopher Maltman’s lyric baritone is ostensibly ideal. That said, his manner in ‘Ging heut’ morgen über’s Feld’ was more weary than resigned, while the melodramatics of ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ verged on the contrived – not helped by Ono’s often awkward rubato. More convincing was the teasing wistfulness of ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ and the fatalistic acceptance of ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’, its progress towards a restrained transcendence movingly judged. Often seen as a dry run for the First Symphony, this song-cycle has its own cohesiveness – intermittently in evidence here.

Currently Music Director of La Monnaie in Brussels, Ono is a conductor with a considerable reputation in Europe who has yet to establish a profile in the UK. It would be interesting to know if the choice of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony (1971) for the second half was his or that of the Proms planners keen to programme this composer as much as possible in his centenary year. Certainly the opening Allegretto was raced through at a tempo causing numerous problems of ensemble and little in the way of expressive intensity. Nor did the scherzo more than intimate the barbed humour that its curt gestures surely warrant. The intervening Adagio was much more convincing – Ono alive to the way in which its often fractured asides and soliloquies slowly coalesce into a threnody of unnerving emotional power, and with some telling solo contributions from the woodwind and brass.

The finale began rather passively – Ono seeming uncertain how to ‘pitch’ the Wagner allusions – but unfolded at a tempo flowing enough to maintain momentum yet flexible enough to be modified so that the quasi-passacaglia at its centre assumes additional gravity. The climax itself was vividly projected but confused in internal balance (its enveloping dissonance needed to come through more potently), and the closing stage – spectral percussion over a frozen A major ‘gaze’ – was delicate but rather too impassive in demeanour. On balance, however, Ono had the measure of a piece whose ‘meaning’ seems as far – if not further – away now than when it appeared. The mark of a true masterpiece, perhaps?

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