© 2011,2014 Lawrence Tuczynski

Title: Works For Piano, Volume 2
CD Label: Raison
CD Number: ZMM-1011
Music Composed by: Akira Ifukube
Music Performed by: Reiko Yamada (Piano I)
Patrick Godon (Piano II)
Brett Rowe (Piano II)
Number of tracks: 18
Running time: 74:05
Number of discs: 1
Year of release/manufacture: November 14, 2010
Recording Date: September 23/27 & 28, 2010


February 25, 2014

Review by Sam Scali

This CD features piano arrangements of two of Akira Ifukube's major concert works, one of which has not been heard in its entirety since the 1950s. As on the previous volume in this series, these pieces are magnificently performed by world renowned concert pianist Reiko Yamada, along with two eminent accompanists. Ms. Yamada is a dedicated proponent of Ifukube's work, having attended four years of the maestro's seminars at the Tokyo College of Music.

The first piece, the epic FIRE OF PROMETHEUS, was originally conceived and performed as a full ballet in 1950, the result of a collaboration between Ifukube, librettist Hisatoshi Kikuoka and dancer Takaya Eguchi. The narrative is based on a figure of Greek mythology, a Titan who defied Jupiter (aka, Zeus) by introducing fire to mankind, and was subsequently punished by being chained to a rock and tormented by a giant eagle.

Unfortunately the ballet's original orchestral score had long been considered lost, but shortly after its completion Ifukube created a dual piano arrangement to be used for touring purposes, and this treatment has happily survived. The piano version retains the sprawling, 52-minute structure of the original ballet, in four acts (plus a prelude, prologue and finale). These movements are further broken down into 17 segments, most of which are very short (ranging from less than two minutes to just under four), except for the prologue (Track 2), which is just over five minutes, and "Joy of Fire" (Track 12), an eight-and-a-half-minute tour de force that is arguably the ballet's centerpiece.

The first three tracks exquisitely set the scene. The portentous "Preludio" opens with a dramatic flourish, its seismic chords and rumbling undertones hinting at the fateful events that are about to unfold. The disquiet is enhanced by a sustained, high-pitched tremolo juxtaposed against a mournful descending motif, which creates a palpable feeling of tension. The lovely "Prologhetto" briefly diffuses the dread with a fleeting glimpse of optimism, at first moving along at a languorous pace, but gradually slowing in tempo to assume a darker, more apprehensive tone. The segment suddenly shifts into a swaggering, slightly off-kilter march before closing with a series of lilting, melodic figures. "Intermezzo I" renews the feeling of anxiety with a frenetic buildup, its suspense heightened by rapidly ascending piano chords that foreshadow the turbulence to come.

Act I begins with "Dance of Io", an enchanting, if somewhat melancholic theme that introduces the hapless female character. According to mythology, Io is a human maiden who is lusted after by Jupiter, as invoked in the next track, the restless "Dance of the Malevolent God". Its atonal sound and asymmetrical, obstinate gait betray the supreme deity's fickle narcissism. But when Jupiter's jealous wife Juno discovers his philandering, he instigates a clever transformation of his unwilling concubine in order to conceal her from Juno's wrath. A reprise of Io's lovely theme, as well as the hyperactive ascending chords from the first Intermezzo, return for "Io's Metamorphosis into a Cow". The act closes on a downbeat note, with the solemn reverie of "Intermezzo II".

The decisive chords of "Dance of Prometheus" open Act II, portraying the Titan as a formidable character who means business. His strident, uncompromising theme is both heroic and unsettling, with a distinctly dissonant undercurrent running throughout. His "Dance of Rebellion Against Jupiter" is even more resolute and tonally jarring, while the lively, cascading figures of "The One Who Steals Fire" sound as defiant as they do heroic - as Prometheus willfully ignores Jupiter's decree to keep fire out of the hands of mortals. The third "Intermezzo" punctuates Prometheus's restlessness with a feeling of resignation, alluding to a bleak outcome from the Titan's valiant efforts.

"Joy of Fire" dominates Act IV, and is the ballet's most fully realized musical statement - yet its ominous introduction is far from joyful. Tense, deliberate notes are spat out against strained, high-pitched arpeggios, which are only briefly offset by a rhapsodic, cascading melody. The feeling of trepidation is finally broken by a jaunty, triumphant motif that gradually increases in both exuberance and tempo. This nimbly-articulated passage serves as an impressive showcase for Ms. Yamada's virtuosity and spirited playing style, convincingly evoking the sense of jubilation and merriment that Prometheus's glowing gift to mankind would surely inspire. But the elation is short-lived, as the piece suddenly collapses in a cacophony of broken notes and discordant glissandi. The lushly poignant "Intermezzo IV" closes the act, its yearning desperation warning of the danger and heartbreak that lie ahead.

The final, turbulent chapter takes place atop the Caucuses Mountains, where Prometheus finds himself chained to a huge rock for daring to defy the vengeful Jupiter. The act opens with the brief and dissonant "Storm", consisting of a foreboding, subterranean theme (later reworked for Ifukube's 1957 soundtrack to THE MYSTERIANS) joined by an emphatic staccato refrain. The next track, the quirky "Dance of the Eagle" is a deceptively upbeat backdrop for a creature that is poised to terrorize the defenseless Prometheus. The winged predator's eccentric motif echoes Jupiter's own "Malevolent" dance, and is effectively intertwined with a more buoyant arrangement of the "Prologhetto" melody as well as strains of the Titan's earlier "Rebellion" music, thus enhancing the feeling of interaction and conflict. "Dialogue With Io" presents a more somber incarnation of the maiden's wistful tune, as she visits the captive hero while still in bovine form to relate her sad tale. Prometheus offers her hope and consolation which, considering his own predicament, is a very optimistic outlook.

The ballet's brief finale delivers welcome resolution with an uplifting, melodic crescendo, as the story concludes with Io's transformation back to human form (courtesy of Jupiter) and a newly-freed Prometheus (thanks to Jupiter's mortal son, Hercules). According to myth, these happy events actually occur years, if not generations later, but swift dénouements are not uncommon in the worlds of ballet and modern dance. Regardless, FIRE OF PROMETHEUS is beautifully realized in this scaled-down piano arrangement, and one can only imagine the impact the work had in its 1950 premiere, with the added benefit of a full orchestra (not to mention the choreography, costumes and other visuals).

The CD's second composition, a piano reduction of Ifukube's RITMICA OSTINATA (1961), is another splendid reading of a previously symphonic work. The difference is that the familiar orchestral version was also heavily piano-driven, so this new downsized arrangement is not as much of a departure. In its original form it has always been one of Ifukube's most dynamic creations, and one of the most difficult to play - not only because of its intricacy and accelerated tempo, but also because its intense, percussive piano attack demands considerable physical endurance as well as skill.

Reiko Yamada proves more than ready for the challenge, and delivers a superb, expressive rendition. Such is the complexity of the piece that it requires not one, but two additional players on second piano, and both offer invaluable support. The results are so satisfying that listeners familiar with earlier recordings may find themselves forgetting that the piano was previously augmented by a full orchestra (Ms.Yamada herself was featured on one of those performances, on 2008's WORKS FOR PIANO, VOLUME 1). But in any form, the work is simply breathtaking - a relentless, single-movement juggernaut that only Akira Ifukube could have conceived

This CD is a brilliant addition to the maestro's recorded legacy, for its presentation as well as its choice of material. Ifukube fans would be well advised to pick it up while it is still in print.

Akira Ifukube Works for Piano, volume 2 (ZMM1011)

    Fire of Prometheus (Ballet) for Two Pianos - Complete Score (1950)

  1. Preludio
  2. Prologue

  3. Prologetto
  4. Intermezzo I
  5. Act I (Darkness without Fire / Dance of Io)

  6. Dance of Io
  7. Dance of the Malevolent God
  8. Io's Metamorphosis into a Cow
  9. Intermezzo II
  10. Act II (Those Who Steal Fire)

  11. Dance of Prometheus
  12. Dance of Rebellion against Jupiter
  13. The One Who Steals Fire
  14. Intermezzo III
  15. Act III (Joy of Fire)

  16. Joy of Fire
  17. Intermezzo IV
  18. Act IV (Atop the Caucuses)

  19. Storm
  20. Dance of the Eagle
  21. Dialogue with Io
  22. Final

  23. Final
  24. Ritmica Ostinata per Pianoforte ed Orchestra (1961, revised version 1971)

  25. Piano II Orchestral reduction