Toshio Hosokawa: Solo Concertos Vol.1

Arditti, Ott, Wambach; DSO Berlin; SWRSO, NDR Radiophilharmonie/Robert HP Platz (Neos 10716)

22 July 2009 3 stars

HosokawaToshio Hosokawa is a Japanese composer born in Hiroshima. For part of his studies he spent time in Berlin, and since the late eighties he has established himself as a prominent presence on the contemporary scene in Germany, teaching there regularly and being composer in residence with DSO Berlin in 2006-7 and WDR Rundfunkchor Köln in 2006-8.

This release brings together three concertos written by Hosokawa since his first mature works in the late eighties. They range over a period of roughly ten years, and are each marked by similar musical concerns, concerns treated in different ways according to the particular instrumental forces utilised. Hosokawa's music draws from two distinct musical traditions that his music someway straddles: European art music and the gagaku music of the Japanese imperial court. Although he did not become aware of gagaku until his postgraduate studies with Isang Yun in Berlin, its principles inform upon his compositional outlook in a formal sense, and in such a way that it suggests different perspectives from which one can hear the music.

Landscape III, the first work, is a violin concerto in one movement (indeed, all of the concertos presented here are in single movement form). Its dedicatee, Irvine Arditti, plays it here with his usual strength and sureness of touch, joined by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. There is a striking simplicity to the static onward march of the music, which seems to float along unconcerned with going in any direction in particular. The material in particular is defined by long drawn out tones with the support of an open string, sometimes articulating double-stopped semitones. The intervals favoured are the familiar 'European avant-garde' ones, minor seconds and tritones featuring heavily. The orchestra is used with restraint and deployed mainly for colour, with long brass chords and ritualistic percussion. As the title suggests, there is a quasi-impressionistic feeling with the music; albeit not one lying in Debussy-esque ninths, but one instead couched in a dark atonal language that occasionally brings to mind Scelsi, and which is evocative rather than declamatory.

That atonal language, however, results in the music coming across overall at times a little flat. It is native to atonality to be static; and without a harmonic centre of orientation to distinguish the different areas of the music, a sense of monotony doesn't take long to set in. Since changes in timbre and dynamic are not the aim of Hosokawa, it would seem difficult for him to sustain interest over the length of an extended form; and the concertos here are all relatively brief, ranging from fourteen to eighteen minutes. Their common soundworld doesn't require any further extention, and nor does it suggest it could support it.

Hosokawa's first composition for solo instrument and orchestra was the flute concerto Per-Sonare. This work approaches closer to gagaku by way of the wind soloist: the Japanese shakuhachi, used in gagaku, inspired the flute writing here, which features breathy tones and rasps, fluttertonguing, singing through the instrument, multiphonics and other non-note-based methods of articulation. The orchestra (here the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg) has for the most part receded even further into the background from the previous track, the score calling for two groups deployed spacially to the extreme right and extreme left behind the audience. Again the music is for the most part static and motionless, sitting on tremors of dynamics that rumble across the orchestra. Glissandi on the flute are reflected in the strings and other orchestral sections, which function as echoes of the sounded material emanating from it. Gunhild Ott's performance on flute is vigorous and feral.

Rounding things off is the most recent work on the disc, Ans Meer, a piano concerto that is a reworking of Hosokawa's previous saxophone concerto. Performed by Bernhard Wambach along with the NDR Radiophilharmonie, the same ambience immediately prevails from the outset, mysterious, steady and dark, with the soloist's discourse altered to suit the character of the piano.

This monotony of material can make the recording overall feel dull if you aren't in the right mood for it, or are seeking virtuosic displays and contrasts of tempi and dynamics from these concertos. But as mentioned earlier, there is another viewpoint from which these works stand apart from the European tradition. In that sense they are as much ceremonial and ambient in character, stemming from a context other than that of the concert hall, and suggesting quite a lot to the imagination by way of subtle shading within a purposely-restricted palette. The works continuously run over the same ground, sifting up different things each time. 'Music has to be noble', Hosokawa is quoted as saying in the booklet, an opinion that points towards the 'sovereignty' of the work of art: something separate from human concerns, something that approaches by way of each work and through its course, but which is itself never made manifest.

By Liam Cagney