Momo Kodama/Seiji Ozawa: Hosokawa/Mozart (ECM New Series 2624)

Momo Kodama
Seiji Ozawa

Momo Kodama piano
Mito Chamber Orchestra

Seiji Ozawa conductor

Recorded December 2006, Concert Hall ATM, Art Tower Mito
Engineer: Yoshinori Nishiwaki
Balance engineer: Suenori Fukui
Cover photo: Max Franosch
An ECM Production
Release date: April 12, 2021

After making her ECM New Series solo debut with 2013’s La vallée des cloches, followed by Point and Line in 2017, pianist Momo Kodama belatedly presents a finely articulated diptych of compositions. Under the baton of Maestro Seiji Ozawa, she joins the Mito Chamber Orchestra for this live recording from 2006, which saw the premiere of the opening work, Lotus under the moonlight, by Toshio Hosokawa. Written for Kodama, this homage to Mozart for piano and orchestra resulted from a commission that same year by the Norddeutscher Rundfunk, for which Hosokawa chose a favorite Mozart piano concerto and wrote this companion piece. Using the F-sharp minor slow movement as inspiration, it begins suspended before subtle disturbances, like the fluttering of butterfly wings, waft through the air. Paintings in moonlight on watery canvas take shape, turning darkness into speech and speech into song. There is patience gently asked for—and returned—by the willing listener, whose ears may finesse the scene with details unknowable through any other sensory organ. Music like this needn’t ask for breath because it is breath incarnate. It inhales silence and exhales shifts in climate activated by the kind of touch that skin cannot evoke or experience. It is, instead, an experience of the soul, which trembles and prays. There are moments of absolute sublimity, as when the piano scales downward and upward beneath gossamer strings. Siren-like cries reach quietly overhead, linking their verses through the clouds, ending in windchimes of an otherwise forgotten past.

In the wake of that internal gesture, the externality of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, shines like a blast of refined light, moving through its motifs at the shake of a bough in morning light. With barely a nod to the dream that came before, we emerge onto sunlit pasture, hand in hand with the solstice. Kodama’s entrance is likewise imbued with spectral awareness. Every arpeggio is as legato as it is staccato and points our attention to a time when joy was of central artistic concern. That said, there is great mystery in this music still, coaxing from our hearts an awareness that is anything but chronological. The Adagio flips this world upside down. A ponderous quality pervades. It is cautious yet all the more alive for it. Faith is restored in the Allegro assai, flowing with blessed assurance but also a lightness of step that never fails to smile. Those looking for a thrilling Mozart will not be able to punch their ticket here. Rather, one will encounter a regard for pathos: a worthily prosaic shade to include in the spectrum alongside Hosokawa’s poetry.

Orchestras tend to be seen as the context into which a soloist is placed. Then there is Kodama, who plays with such generosity that this recording feels the other way around: she provides the landscape across which the orchestra may travel. Ozawa makes sure that every nomadic step is faithfully documented for posterity. Despite aging in the ECM vaults for 15 years, we are invited to feel the presence of its creation here and now.

Momo Kodama: Point and Line (ECM New Series 2509)

Point and Line

Momo Kodama
Point and Line

Momo Kodamapiano
Recorded January 2016, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 27, 2017

Four years after making her ECM New Series debut with La vallée des cloches, pianist Momo Kodama returns with a program that is equally adventurous in expectation and inevitable in hindsight, this time shuffling the Études pour piano, L 136 (1915) of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Etude I-VI for piano, SJ 1180 (2011-13) of Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955) into an integrated experience. Having performed both cycles separately, here Kodama imagines them in dialogue with each other. “A number of elements in Hosokawa’s music,” she writes in her liner note, “make me sense a proximity to Debussy. One is the freedom of its formal design; another is its interplay and layering of colors. What I fins especially remarkable in both is a capacity for poetic utterance and ranges widely between lyricism and drama, between meditation and virtuosic display.” As in acts of translation between languages, what separates is also what binds, and Kodama is a masterful interpreter in that regard, fluent as she is in every dialectical nuance at hand.

“Hand” is indeed the operative word, as Kodama’s parallel communicators ride over the intimate cascades of Debussy’s Etude XI before swirling the waters below in defiance of prettiness. Thus, whatever conversational approach we might attribute to process isn’t necessarily between two (or more) people, but rather between different shades of the same musical self. Kodama’s rendering thereof illuminates a cohesive identity, and she, as surely the composers themselves, revels in disruptions, treating each as an opportunity for productive change.

Hosokawa’s Etude II, from which this album get its name, takes its descriptive heading with beautiful literalness, contrasting sustained notes and dotted clusters, the latter as sprays of baby’s breath in a wider bouquet. A spirit of favorable conflict prevails, as also in Debussy’s Etude III, wherein points and lines are converted into poetry. Not that what follows is a series of impressionistic vignettes, but a space in which every utterance counts. As dynamics lob from soft to loud and back again, we are primed for the versification of Hosokawa’s “Calligraphy, Haiku, 1 Line” (Etude III), of which dramatic outbursts amid resonant silences become organic allies.

As the composers continue to seesaw between foreground and background, something surprising begins to happen: we begin to lose track of who wrote what. For while the reveries of Etudes IV and VIII have an obviously Debussean flavor, we might also read distinctly Hosokawan associations into the second and first etudes. And while the tail-chasing details of Hosokawa’s first and fourth etudes reveal a childlike dedication to play (the latter’s subtitle, “Ayatori, Magic by 2 Hands, 3 Lines,” makes reference to the cat’s cradle game), his respect for Debussy peeks from behind the curtains of “Lied, Melody” (Etude VI), a high point that pushes darkness and light through lattices of memory.

Retrospection seems equally vital to sustaining Debussy’s mocking Etude I and Hosokawa’s visceral “Anger” (Etude V), and by the emotional clarity of those expressions turns anticipation into reflection. Like Debussy’s Etude VII, they draw a compass between our ears, for while the notes may go up and down, the hands travel right and left, leaving us with a navigational instrument to cherish as we leave this land behind into uncharted waters.

Momo Kodama: La vallée des cloches (ECM New Series 2343)

La valée des cloches

Momo Kodama
La vallée des cloches

Momo Kodama piano
Recorded September 2012, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As of late, ECM’s New Series imprint seems to be on a mission to prove that impressionism in classical music is, if anything, an exercise in clarity. This has been the message behind such releases as Tre Voci and Alexei Lubimov’s account of the Debussy Préludes. Joining these debunkers is distinguished pianist Momo Kodama, whose first solo recital for the label is sublime as crystal.

The title (which translates to “The valley of the bells”) of her characteristic program comes from Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs. This five-part gallery of expressionist vignettes wants for nothing in environmental fidelity. Each is an embodiment of its image, and then some. The first two pieces, “Noctuelles” (Night moths) and “Oiseaux tristes” (Sorrowful birds), are together a study in contrasts, juxtaposing the former’s dreamlike wing-beats, which by slightest touch of pond’s surface scatter minnows in sunbursts of activity, and the latter’s methodical gravidity, which transgresses memory like a cigarette through silk. Already obvious at this point is Kodama’s meticulous pressure, her balancing of strength and fragility. She adds leagues to “Une barque sur l’océan” (A boat on the ocean). Like a ballerina dissolving one cell at a time, it pirouettes into a dream of wind and sail, as if one were the inverse of the other. “Alborada del gracioso” (Mornign song of the jester), on the other hand, has a Spanish flavor, made all the more vibrant for its dissonances and reflective detours, while the final bells make for some strangely provocative reflections.

Momo Kodama

At the other end of the album’s spectrum is Olivier Messiaen, a composer close to Kodama’s heart and whose La fauvette des jardins is a wonder. Something of an extension of the Catalogue d’oiseaux, a recording of which Kodama released to great acclaim on the Triton label in 2011, it presents formidable challenges to the musician by way of its affective variety. An ashen foundation in the piano’s lower register contrasts and diffuses the upward motions that follow, lighting the way with the breath of a thousand torches. Its paroxysms are decidedly spiritual. Through them salvation sings with the notecraft of insects. A restlessness of servitude pervades. It speaks through contact of flesh and bone, not tongue and breath. The piece’s negotiation of the progressive and the regressive is ideally suited to Kodama, who transforms its turbulence into an opportunity for reflection, such that its consonances feel exhausting in their orthodoxy.

Considering that Tōru Takemitsu was such a great admirer of both Debussy and Messiaen, his Rain Tree Sketch makes for effortless company. Occupying as it does the center of the program, one might feel tempted to read it as filler or segue from one French master to the other. In Kodama’s practice, however, it holds its own as a robust work of art. Takemitsu was, of course, a prolific film composer in his native Japan, and his experiences in that capacity seems to have carried over into his later works, of which this is but one evocative example. The illustrative strengths explored in the work introduce another relationship of balance into Kodama’s toolkit—this between circular and linear forms—and does so with meditative attention paid to the underlying touch of things. Like the musician herself, Takemitsu’s idea of a sketch is full enough to be called consummate.