The three young men in Los Angeles who have formed the new independent record company called Varese Sarabande may be able to explain why they chose these two terms and combined them for the name of their label, but that story is far less interesting than their catalogue of offerings.
For one thing, it offers some intriguing new (to most U.S. listeners) orchestral music from Japan, in apparently definitive performances. For another, it brings us for the first time discs pressed in Japan for release on a domestic American label. For yet another, there are some very welcome reissues of recordings that had been collectors' items for years.
The phenomenon of the Japanese pressings is exciting in itself, for the Japanese seem to have sneaked up on the English, Germans and Dutch to take the world championship in this critical area of record production. Nippon Columbia's Denon series, discussed here last June 4, is as noteworthy for the impeccable pressings as for the sonic splendors achieved through the PCM digital process, and the discs pressed for Varese Sarabande by JVC (Japan Victor) are every bit as impressive in that regard.
Perhaps the single most interesting item on the new label is the expansive Symphony No. 2 of Saburo Moroi, performed by the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra under Shigenobu Yamaoka (VX 81062). Moroi, 75 on Aug. 7, presents quite a different image from these projected by his younger compatriots (Mayuzumi, Takemitsu, et al.). He saw the rise of Hitler during his student days in Berlin, and is said to have written his Second Symphony, in 1937, as a comment on the distressing turn of events which led to conflict between Japan and China that summer. The three-movement work is expressive in the full-blooded romantic tradition. It is also superbly crafted and selectively eclectic, with passages here and there which suggest Sibelius, Cesar Franck and his disciples, or Bruckner with a leavening of early Prokofiev. No big tunes, but the sort of power and directness that can hardly fail to sweep the listener along.
Another disc, with the same orchestra and conductor, presents shorter pieces by four of Moroi's contemporaries, under the heading "Nippon - Impressions from the West" (VX 81061). The impressions are abundant, even in the treatment of Japanese themes. Yasuji Kiyose's Japanese Festival Dances show a clear indebtedness to Respighi, while Shiru Fukai's Quatre Mouvements parodiques (with Takanori Kobayashi, piano) pay direct homage to Falla, Stravinsky, Ravel and Roussel. Both of these works, nevertheless, show a good deal of originality in the handling of the borrowed techniques, and the shorter Night Meditation by Masao Ohki and Mandara no Hana ("The Hawthorn") by Kohsaku Yamada are little gems, no matter how many likenesses or derivations one may discern in them.
Other Japanese recordings are Bach's Musical Offering, with Helmut Winschermann conducting the Deutsche Bachsolisten in his own arrangement of the work (VX 81063), and an East-West confrontation called "Orchestral Space" (VX 81060)) in which Seiji Ozawa conducts the Yomiuri orchestra in Ligeti's Atmospheres, Ichiyanagi's Life Music, Takemitsu's Arc (with Yuji Takahashi, piano) and Xenakis' Strategie (with Hiroshi Wakasugi conducting the second orchesta). The sound of the orchestra is sensational in all these recordings, and the surfaces, hapily, make no sound at all.
There are also, on the imported pressings, several well-remembered film scores by Victor Young, Alfred Newman, Hugo Friedhofer and Miklos Rozsa. All of these were taken from soundtracks and originally issued by U.S. Decca, whose catalogue was the source of some domestically pressed Varese Sarabande reissues - not only more of Rozsa's film music, but Leopold Stokowski's beautiful performance with the Symphony of the Air of the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D (VC 81050), Milhaud conducting his own Globetrotter and Joys of Life suites (VC 81051), Lukas Foss playing his own Second Piano Concerto (VC 81052) and Jascha Heifetz in a program of Gershwin, Bennett and others. (VC 81054).
A further source of reissue material is represented among the label's domestic pressings - the old Remington catalogue, from which so far we have Enesco conducting his Rumanian Rhapsodies Nos. 1 and 2 and Dixturo for winds (VC 81042), Thor Johnson's one-and-only recording of Sibelius' Origin of Fire (VC 81041), Johnson's Dvorak Eighth (VC 81044) and a Simon Barere recital (VC 81045). There is even a Sibelius First by the RIAS Orchestra under Jussi Jalas, together with the same composer's delicious (how often can one use such a term for Sibelius?) Humoresques for violin and orchestra, with Anja Ignatius, material never issued before (VC 81043).
This is quite a stimulating introduction for a new label, and, according to Varese Sarabande's Tom Null, there is to be more in the "historical reissue" category as well as more from Japan. The musical sense and production standards demonstrated by this young company in its initial release are the sort of things that inspire not only interest but intense loyalty on the part of serious collectors - for much of what Varese Sarabande is doing seems to be precisely what the industry giants tell us they can't afford to do.
(List price for the imports is $8.98 - probably to rise to $9.98 soon because of the ascendancy of the yen; the domestically pressed discs are $7.98).