BIS' Japanese Love Songs is one of the strangest recordings issued under the eminent Swedish label's imprimatur, with all of its 11 works scored for no more than mezzo-soprano (Marie Kobayashi), saxophone (provided by Claude DeLangle), and percussionist Jean Geoffroy. That's because the disc is only part of the story; this entire program was done as a performance at the Museum of the Asiatic Arts in Nice, incorporating poetry readings -- only one poem is retained -- and butoh dancing by Yumi Fujitani, naturally not included. What visual representation of the program included is of no use at all, it's just two very dark color shots of the artists in silhouette and nothing inside the booklet. The program, however, is very interesting, with works by Japanese composers of the younger generation Masakazu Natsuda and Fuminori Tanada; a somewhat older group represented by Toshio Hosokawa; Ryo Noda and Ishiro Nodaira; and finally the departed master Akira Ifukube, whose Three Ecologues after Epos Among Ainu Races (1956) are threaded throughout the show. Additionally, there are pieces included by Hacène Larbi and Bertrand Doubedout, French composers who have enjoyed long professional ties to Japan.
Ifukube's song cycle has a strong relationship to Japanese folk traditions, being scored only for voice and percussion, and each piece in the cycle dramatically stands out from anything that's around it. The works of all three "somewhat older" Japanese composers betray the influence of Anton Webern and are difficult to distinguish from one another apart from Noda's Improvisation 1 (1972-1973), a saxophone solo that collides the language of Webern with the tonal quality of, say, Paul Desmond. Boulez fever also infects the French composers, whose works are the least interesting things here. Natsuda's Two Poems by Ryokan (2005) is also couched in the language of Webern, perhaps even more so than the others, except that it's realized very well within that strain of endeavor and, at times, appears to be breaking loose from its echt-Viennese moorings. Tanada's Duo for mezzo-soprano and soprano saxophone (2006), however, is terrific, a piece that pushes both the sax and voice to their limits with special sounds that make a successful attempt to both contrast and unite such qualities; it is trippy in a way one wishes the whole album was.
Nothing against the performers: Kobayashi's voice is a genuinely beautiful instrument, low-key, flexible, controlled, and never overdoing it with the vibrato in order to gain power and heft. DeLangle's soprano saxophone is so pure in tone that at times it sounds like a flute, and Geoffroy handles the scant use of percussion to accompany Kobayashi's poetic recitation from Toson Shimazaki's "Kimi Ha Kokoro Wa" with deft understatement. However, the theme of love is represented in anything but a lovely way and what you get in its stead is a lot of gestures and gestalt. The essential problem with BIS' Japanese Love Songs is that this is the kind of performance you get when a French Arts organization commissions Japanese art primarily from French artists and Japanese composers educated in Europe; something that sounds more European than Japanese. It would have been a great deal better had it been a video rather than a CD, as the butoh dancer would have put it all in perspective; on its own, it can only be said that BIS' Japanese Love Songs, despite the noble effort from its performers, is not as advertised.