The Naxos Japanese Classics release Humiwo Hayasaka: Piano Concerto is one of the most consequential and significant volumes in the Japanese Classics series. This is not to say that the previous volumes devoted to the music of Ifukube, Mayuzumi, or Takemitsu are inferior in quality. From a purely performance-oriented angle, the interpretations by Takuo Yuasa and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra are more accomplished than the slightly scrappy Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under Dmitry Yablonsky heard here. Nonetheless, the music of Hayasaka is difficult to find on disc even in Japan, and his Piano Concerto in particular is a significant Japanese work that has long needed a recording. This one will certainly do. The solo part, played by Hiromi Okada, is professionally done and is in sympathy with the work, couched as it is in the language of Rachmaninov and the grand post-romantic tradition. While some may find this concerto too imitative of Western models, conversely it seems to evoke Asia in its continental sense, drawing from Russian music for the basic formal model but from the Far East for its cultural, emotional, and melodic base. Hayasaka's Piano Concerto is an easily appealing work, which would earn an ovation in any concert hall in the world, and yet is serious in its essentials and never sounds like travelogue music.
Like Akira Ifukube, Hayasaka was one of the composers who put Japanese music on the map through the medium of film a bit before Toru Takemitsu placed it in Western concert halls. Hayasaka's best-known works are the scores for Akira Kurosawa films such as Rashomon and The Seven Samurai. Unlike Ifukube, who was still writing movie scores for Godzilla up to the turn of the nineteenth century, Hayasaka, whose first name is more commonly given as "Fumio," succumbed to tuberculosis at age 41 not long after The Seven Samurai became an international hit. The bugaku-inspired Ancient Dances on the Left and on the Right, not to be confused with Hayasaka's Weingartner Prize-winning Ancient Dances of 1938, is a work from 1941 that's more overtly Japanese in its general sound than the Piano Concerto. The early Overture in D from 1939 shows Hayasaka adopting a Stravinskyan mode of operation that would not last long in his oeuvre, but it demonstrates Hayasaka's ability to absorb Western models while managing to instill his own personal stamp on them. Ironically, it is in this relatively easy work that the scrawniness of the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra becomes most apparent, but it is a minor distraction in what is an otherwise thoroughly compelling and satisfying program.