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.

Toshio Hosokawa: Landscapes (ECM New Series 2095)


Toshio Hosokawa

Mayumi Miyata shō
Münchener Kammerorchester
Alexander Liebreich conductor
Recorded October 2009, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Toshio Hosokawa, born 1955 in Hiroshima, is a fisher of multiple ponds. On the one hand, he carries the torch of European modernism, having studied in Germany under Isang Yun and Klaus Huber. On the other, he professes a deep affinity for traditional Japanese music and Zen Buddhism.


Landscapes is ECM’s only disc dedicated to the composer, who in three of the album’s four pieces employs the shō, or Japanese mouth organ. Here it is played by Mayumi Miyata. A pioneer in introducing the shō as a solo instrument in contemporary classical music, she plays a “concert” shō with a pitch range broader than its standard counterpart. It requires expert control of the lungs, including circular breathing and steady changes in dynamic intensity. In Miyata’s hands it sings like the very phoenix it was originally intended to mimic.

Mayumi Miyata

As for Hosokawa’s music, it all too easily falls into an interpretive trap like so many characterizations of Japan in general, which tend to paint the culture as a uniquely enigmatic blend of the ancient and the modern. Yet such an image fails to acknowledge the immediacy of its creative arts, and in particular of Hosokawa’s sound-world, which for all intents and purposes seeks not a bridging of spaces and eras but a reckoning of their aesthetic and (sometimes) political intersections. In the latter vein, he has created massive works in memory of the victims of Hiroshima and the tragic tsunami/earthquake of 3.11. In the former we have this program of meticulous dreamscapes to whet our appetite for beauty. It is, however, a tainted sort of beauty, one not destined for the painter’s canvas but rather for the videographer’s resignation. In his liner notes, Paul Griffiths likens Hosokawa’s constructions to the amorphousness of clouds, and certainly we can feel that stretch of variation, play of sun and spectrum, and stormy grays manifesting throughout the program.

Landscape V, originally composed for string quartet in 1993 and later expanded to the current version for shō and orchestra, unfurls a veil as thin as an insect’s wing that conforms itself to the shō’s summery spirals. One might not expect breath through bamboo to mesh so well with the feel of horsehair drawn across strings, but in Hosokawa’s renderings at least they become harmony incarnate, the shō illuminating the flow of air through an orchestra’s sound holes. In this pairing one may hear voices, shifts of wind, the flow of water, the meeting of stones, and even the light of moon taking sonic shape. The music is, at the same time, crystal clear. It wears no pretension, puts on no airs. It is, rather, the full breadth of its titular landscape pulled through a wormhole of consistency, so that even the more explosive moments take form not as catharses but as opportunities for deeper contemplation.

The Ceremonial Dance (2000) that follows is for string orchestra only, but loses no texture in the shō’s elision. Its heart would seem to lie in the comportment of gagaku (traditional Japanese court music), which turns illusions of a floating world into hyper-articulate bodies. That being said, the “dance” is implied through effect rather than movement, hiding in the absent drum. There is a liminal quality to this piece, performing an indeterminable ritual of which the score is but a simulacrum.

Sakura (2008), for shō solo, acts as a prelude to a choral setting of Japan’s most ubiquitous folk song. Bearing dedication to the former music director of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Otto Tomek (who also commissioned the setting), it is intimate and drifting, more postlude than prelude, the afterimage of a fallen blossom’s path toward water. As luminescent as its chords are, they are also dappled by the shadows of an unbroken gaze.

Last is Cloud and Light (2008), which pairs the shō with a full orchestra, including some light yet impactful percussion. Like its predecessors, it never overwhelms with its style, but unpacks itself in real time with self-awareness and tactility. It enacts a sharing of spirit between water and air, between the shapeless and the shaping. Large brushstrokes of brass pull their hairs through ink, soaking up as much of the universe as they can before falling along with the rain into the pond where Hosokawa’s bob and lure continue their meditation, content in knowing that no fish need ever bite to bring meaning to their dangle.

(To hear samples of Landscapes, click here.)

Thomas Demenga: Hosokawa/Bach/Yun (ECM New Series 1782/83)


Thomas Demenga

Thomas Demenga cello
Teodoro Anzellotti accordion
Asako Urushihara violin
Aurèle Nicolet flute
Heinz Holliger oboe
Hansheinz Schneeberger violin
Thomas Larcher piano
Hosokawa/Bach: Suite No. 5 recorded November 2000, Kirche Blumenstein
Bach: Suite No. 6/Yun: Espace I, Gasa recorded December 1998
Engineer: Teije van Geest
Yun: Images (produced by Radio DRS) recorded July 1985, Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Jörg Jecklin
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This album concludes Thomas Demenga’s Bach cycle which, begun in 1986, boldly sought out previously unimagined connections between the Baroque master’s solo cello suites (here, Nos. 5 and 6) and later visionaries. At every step along the way, Demenga has forced not a single hair of his bow in an arbitrary direction, instead finding in each pairing of works and composers a web of simpatico relationships.

Demenga plays the Bach suites a full whole tone down from modern pitch, a tuning contemporaneous with the time of their composition. He even uses unwound strings for a noticeably rawer sound. The Prélude of No. 5 is particularly visceral for it, those opening groans rising from the root of our expectations with withered leaves and rustling secrets. The Courante of the same no longer skips but struggles in an attempt to free itself from the swamps. The Sarabande, however, sings in a way I’ve never known it to before or since. The famous No. 6 Prélude also retains much of its inherent light and bridges over into one of the more heartfelt Allemandes on record. The penultimate Gavotte is also notable for its rustic edge. These are unlike most renditions out there, and for that reason may divide listeners. Either way, I feel as if I have spilled enough virtual ink in Bach’s name to leave my impressions at that and turn to what is most remarkable about this release: the works of Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa and his mentor, the late Korean composer Isang Yun.

Of Hosokawa’s music, Oswald Beaujean has said, “These sounds, to be sure, never appear in the form of musical imitation. Instead, they are reduced to their essence and always retain something deeply artistic.” And indeed as we wrap ourselves in the silvery veils of In die Tiefe der Zeit (Into the depths of time) for cello and accordion (1994/96), we may not help but feel the ground falling away at our feet. The music pulses like a dying body, a light blinking through a gauze curtain. The overall sound is akin to a Japanese mouth organ with a harmonic outlier skirting the edges of its reedy sound. In it we hear a story of famine, of broken families, of burned villages, of people torn from their places of worship. The accordion (played to weeping perfection by Teodoro Anzellotti) shows us the way through this wreckage, so that we might sit before a cross, steeped in the lessons of trauma.

Similarly, the Duo for violin and cello (1998) shows a propensity for swelling, silences, and pauses, though it is far more agitated—a stage of denial that circles an indefinable center. At some moments the instruments seem intent on filling up as much space as they can while at others they beg for that space to fill them in return. This asymptotic push toward silence is a blessing of contemporary classical music, at once sharpening our ears to the world of the microscopic and abolishing the prescriptive master narratives of our histories in favor of fragments. The recording is accordingly porous, attuned to mid- and high-range sounds.

Winter Bird (1978) for violin solo is something of a reprieve from the weighty emotions of all that precedes it. With it Hosokawa manages to bring the subtlety of the shakuhachi to those four humble strings as snatches of melodic energy hop and warble in a cold gray sky brimming with the promise of snow.

Yun’s sound-world is one step removed from time. The works presented here come to us already affected by tortured political past from a man who struggled with his “Eastern” origins and the decidedly “Western” musical paradigms into which he was indoctrinated as a classical composer. Yet these paradigms crumbled as he began to redefine himself in the serial theory of the Darmstadt School, and it was in that aleatoric openness and dematerialization that he came into his own.

Gasa (1963) for violin and piano is a fine example of his holistic approach. Its balance of disparate languages is precisely what makes it grow. This small slice of intrigue trembles with delicate inversions and implosions, a tone-setting specimen under the microscope, dying for self-awareness.

Espace I (1992) for cello and piano, on the other hand, unravels itself in threads of equal thickness and, being the most recent of Yun’s works surveyed here, reveals a composer at the highest stage of personal development. This piece is more uniformly weighted, for where the counterbalances add up to a denser harmony in Gasa, here the dynamics are pockmarked, fading as the piano grumbles like a belly in want of sustenance.

Images (1968) for flute, oboe, violin, and cello brings the project to an enigmatic close. This music takes shape in block chords and releases embryonic tendrils of life into starry ether. Each tone is given life and therefore the potential to occupy space. The combination of instruments is quite effective, all the more so for the committed musicianship under its employ. Like the album as a whole, it shapes itself as if in dire need of contradiction, turning the mirror just so, thereby allowing us to see that the faces we thought we knew were really just reflections all along.