- Kyoku. Performed by Mieko Miyazaki & Suizan Lagrost by Aldo Tollini and Mieko Miyazaki
As musical tastes change over the years, it has become rarer to find a traditional hōgaku repertoire included on contemporary recordings ("traditional" here generally means works from the Edo period [1603–1867]). If asked why, [End Page 147] performers say that today's listeners (and, truth be told, some of the performers themselves) don't like the heavy classics, because they are, well, heavy. That repertoire has gradually been supplanted by contemporary genres (fusion, new age, avant-garde, and so on) and, as koto and shakuhachi have spread outside Japan, by covers of well-known Western classics, pop, rock, and other styles. (YouTube provides samples of Bach, Debussy, Lady Gaga, Deep Purple, Taylor Swift, and various Nintendo themes, to name a few.) So it was heartening to read in Kyoku's liner notes that Mieko Miyazaki and Suizan Lagrost chose to release a CD specifically featuring "virtuosic works, favorite concert pieces from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries."
Miyazaki is a well-known name in the hōgaku world. She graduated from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (now known as Tokyo University of the Arts) in 1992 and since moving to France in 2005 has pushed the boundaries of koto and shamisen on numerous recordings featuring her original compositions (Asobi ni oide, East Current), covers of Western classical composers (Koto Sebastian Bach, Koto Ambient Chopin, and Koto Ambient Gymnopédie, for koto and synthesizer), and cross-cultural endeavors (Nen Nen Sui Sui [koto and erhu], Tessi Tessi [koto and Corsican voices], Saiyuki [koto with guitars, synths, mouth harp, tabla, udu, and bansuri flute]). Jean-François Lagrost, professor at the Conservatories of Kremlin-Bicêtre and Asnières near Paris, started his musical life on flute, studying with numerous teachers in genres ranging from Baroque to jazz to improv. He discovered shakuhachi in 2000 and devoted himself to his new passion, receiving both his daishihan (grand master) rank in 2014 and the stage name of Suizan. In addition to performing a honkyoku (traditional shakuhachi) repertoire, Lagrost, too, has had forays into fusion projects such as Japanistan (Afghan rubab, shakuhachi, tombak, daff).
Kyoku's program is a well-thought-out presentation of the contemporary and the classical. It includes four representative Edo period pieces, each in a different but typical instrumentation. "Yaegoromo" is one of the longest, most difficult pieces of that period. This is an abridged version including instrumental sections and the final vocal part, performed in sankyoku style (chamber ensemble featuring koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi, with Miyazaki handling both koto and shamisen parts). Although it is from the early eighteenth century, there are some definite toe-tapping spots in the middle of the instrumental section as the performers brought this piece to life. One small issue is that unfortunately, due to the prominent nature of their sounds, the shamisen and the shakuhachi often overpower the koto, especially in the second "Yaegoromo" track. "Kurokami" is performed in full, with voice, shamisen, and shakuhachi and with all parts nicely balanced, other than the hajiki notes (in which the shamisen string is plucked sharply with the finger rather than [End Page 148] hit with the plectrum) being a bit strident. Finally, a shortened "Chidori no Kyoku" is performed with koto and shakuhachi (the liner notes did not indicate that this piece was abridged, whereas they did for "Yaegoromo"). The notes offer only a cursory explanation of two of the three songs' themes and none for the third; providing lyrics could have helped give listeners additional context for these three pieces.
The fourth traditional piece is Lagrost's stunning rendition of the honkyoku "Yamagoe." This was one of two standout pieces on the CD for this listener. Lagrost displays to the fullest the capabilities of his instrument and his mastery of it. One senses that his experience on the flute has also informed his shakuhachi...