Toshiro Mayuzumi, now in his 52nd year, is regarded by many of Japan's most important composer, but his music has not had much exposure here. For the last 15 years or so he has been represented in this country almost entirely by a single work, the score he composed for Balanchine's ballet "Bugaku," introduced in 1963. "Bugaku" continues to be performed by the New York City Ballet, but the entire Japanese allotment for concert performances in the United States seems to have been assigned to Toru Takemitsu, and we encounter Mayuzumi's other works only on records.
It is rather surprising that "Bugaku" itself has not yet taken a place in his discography, but there is a worthwhile addition now in the form of an unexpected new Philips release which offers the two "Buddhist" symphonies Mayuzumi wrote at about the time he turned 30. These are the sprawling "Nirvana Symphony" of 1958, which calls for a 12-part male chorus and lots of bells and gongs (three of its six movements are "campanologies"), and the more concise "Mandala Symphony" which came two years later. Performances are by the NHK Symphony Orchestra, with the Japan Chorus Union and conductor Yuzo Toyama in "Nirvana," and with Kazuo Yamada conducting "Mandala" (Philips 9500.762; cassette 7300.841).
In discussing the "Nirvana Symphony" at the time of its premiere, Mayuzumi cited as specific influences the music of Edgar Varese, the chanting of sutras by Buddhist priests, and the tolling of Japanese temple bells. He composed his own settings for actual sutra tests and surrounded them with fascinating effects that reach deeper than surface color. The "Mandala Symphony," on other hand, is an abstract instrumental composition, a "pure collection of sounds" reflecting the composer's response to "the basic thought of Buddhism." For the sake of brevity, one might describe the "Nirvana Symphony" as the more "ceremonial" of the two works, and the "Mandala Symphony" as the more "ecstatic."
An earlier recording of the "Nirvana Symphony," made shortly after the work's premiere, by the same orchestra under the German conductor Wilhelm Schuechter, had a superior chorus and managed to project a greater sense of depth and awe; the chorus's bass soloists were especially impressive. But that version, on the now defunct Time label (not related to Time/Life), has not been around for some time, and Toyama's performance is an attractive one, too.
One may regret the interruption of the "Campanology III" for turnover, but this does enable Philips to give us the "Mandala Symphony" on the same record, and Yamada's expansive reading of this work is more compelling, I think, as well as more smoothly recorded, than Hiroyuki Iwaki's, again with the same orchestra, on Odyssey 32 16 0152. The Odyssey is an interesting package, with a Concerto for Orchestra by Akira Miyoshi and "Textures" by the aforementioned Takemitsu on the other side. But the place to start, for anyone who has either of these Mayuzumi symphonies already, is surely the new Philips release.
Three of Takemitsu's recent chamber works, created for Peter Serkin's group Tashi, have been recorded by Tashi, with the help of seven additional performers, on a new RCA disc (ARL1-3483). These are "Quatrain II" (a revision of a work originally composed for Tashi and orchestra, scaled down for the group's four instruments alone -- clarinet, violin, cello and piano), "Water Ways" (Tashi plus two harps and two vibraphones), and "Waves" (clarinet, horn, two trombones and bass drum).
There is no Buddhist symbolism in these pieces, and far less overt Orientalism than one encounters in works of Debussy or Rimsky-Korsakov, but, the patterns and actual sonorities are fascinating. The performances, of course, may be regarded as definitive, and the sound is near-ideal. My only complaint -- a minor one, to be sure -- is that the imposition of the Tashi logo in gray over the white liner makes Michael Steinberg's informative notes rather hard to read.