Saturday 11 June 2022

Violinist Midori Komachi has not only recorded Vaughan Williams' Violin Sonata but is planning performances of the composer's music in Japan

Simon Callaghan & Midori Komachi recording their Vaughan Williams album
Simon Callaghan & Midori Komachi recording their Vaughan Williams album

On 1 July, the London-based Japanese violinist Midori Komachi is releasing a disc of Vaughan Williams' Complete works for Violin and Piano, with Simon Callaghan on the MusiKaleido label including The Lark Ascending and the rarely performed Violin Sonata in A minor. Not only is Midori performing the music from the disc in the UK but she has a parallel project in Japan, performing Vaughan Williams' music alongside films and talks as well as the release of a new Japanese translation of Simon Heffer's biography of the composer. This builds on Midori's 2017 Delius Project, which included the publication of her Japanese translation of Eric Fenby’s Delius as I Knew Him. I caught up with Midori by Zoom from Japan, where she was doing research for her PhD, to chat about Vaughan Williams, his music for violin and how playing his music in Japan.

Midori Komachi
Midori Komachi
The centre-piece of the new disc is Vaughan Williams' Violin Sonata. Rarely performed, this work is late Vaughan Williams (from 1954), written for the violinist Frederick Grinke when the composer was 82. The first time that Midori played it was when she was learning it for the recording, and she subsequently learned more about the composer and the work. 

I was interested to know how well the sonata was written for the violin. Midori comments that Vaughan Williams learned the violin when younger and certainly The Lark Ascending (written in 1914 and premiered in 1920) is well written for the instrument, and though you might expect the same style for the sonata, it is completely different. Midori feels that you can sense Vaughan Williams' development as a composer in the way he expresses himself in the violin. The writing in the sonata is still melodic, with reminiscences of folksong but for Midori it is more expressive, coming from deep down.

The Violin Sonata was written between Symphonies Nos 7 and 8, and Midori sees Vaughan Williams' mind as being in symphonic sonorities. She did some research on the work, looking at the manuscript and Vaughan Williams' archive. In the first draft there are lots of notes on the page, and seemingly too many ideas. He presented the first draft to the dedicatee, Frederick Grinke, and they made notes on the music. Grinke said it was difficult and suggested reducing the number of notes as well as alternative versions for some passages. Vaughan Williams took in these ideas, and many of the more technical passages incorporate Grinke's suggestions making it a real work of collaboration. Midori feels that he wrote the original work for an ideal sound world rather than for practicality.

The disc also includes The Lark Ascending in Vaughan Williams' original version for violin and piano. To people who are used to hearing it in the orchestral version, it may seem as if the work is reduced. Because Vaughan Williams wrote it for violin and piano (though he knew he would be orchestrating it) it tells a lot about how he imagined the violin part to be played. The works' form, for violin and orchestra in one movement with an extended cadenza, was relatively unusual for the time. Vaughan Williams would have had some works as examples, such as Chausson's Poème (written in 1896, the dedicatee Eugene Ysaÿe  gave the first London performance of Poème, a week after Chausson's untimely death in 1899) and his friend Holst's A Song of the Night (from 1905). But the form was quite new, not virtuoso but expressive. Normally with such works, the violin is in front of the orchestra but with The Lark Ascending things are slightly different and it is in a sense more chamber music. The cadenza is marked 'sure la touche' meaning the bow is played on the fingerboard. This brings a special hushed sound colour. But if you place that in front of an orchestra there is a fear that the violin could drown, but there is no danger of this with violin and piano. This version is a reminder of how he meant it to be played, not virtuosic but more spiritual (though Midori points out, not in a religious sense). So, even though at first it seems like a reduction, this version gives Midori a new perspective on the work.

Vaughan Williams in 1954, signing the guest book at Yale University
Vaughan Williams in 1954, signing the guest book at Yale University

Regarding the Japanese aspect of the project, Vaughan Williams' music has become more popular in Japan recently. There have been a lot of great recordings in the last 20 years and people have got to know the works. The Lark Ascending is the best known of his works there, and several of the symphonies are being performed this year. His music resonates with audiences; the roots of Vaughan Williams' music in folksong are important to Japanese people as many well-known children's songs are actually English folksongs. In the 1890s, Old Lang Syne was introduced as the Japanese wanted to bring music education into Japanese primary schools. Japanese folksongs use pentatonic scales and Old Lang Syne uses the same modal scale as the most popular Japanese folksong. So, people are familiar with English folksong without knowing that they are English. So, The Lark Ascending sounds Japanese to them. Just as Vaughan Williams had the realisation, when first listening to folksong, that he had known it all his life, so with Japanese people when listening to his music. 

This year seemed a good opportunity to introduce Vaughan Williams' music in Japan. She will be presenting a series of events in Japan in the Autumn, including a recital of a programme based on music from the album and she is looking forward to playing the Violin Sonata and finding out what people think of it. And whilst in Japan at the time we did the interview, she had already been getting enquiries from newspapers and magazines to talk about Vaughan Williams, as they haven't got anyone else Japanese to talk about his music.

Though Midori was born in Japan, she moved to Hong Kong when she was three, attending a Japanese kindergarten and so was familiar with the Japanese children's songs that we had been talking about. At the age of eight, the family moved to Switzerland and aged 13 she was living in the UK. London is the place that she has lived in the longest, and it is her second home. She did not learn any English music until the second year of her Masters at the Royal Academy of Music. Looking back, she finds it strange that none of the examinations or the repertoire ever introduced her to English music. 

Paul Gaugin's Nevermore in the Courtauld Gallery
Paul Gaugin's Nevermore in the Courtauld Gallery

She became interested in English music thanks to her interest in the collaboration between music and art. She was researching Gauguin's 1897 painting Nevermore in the Courtauld and she learned that it was first owned by Delius, and she listened to more of his music. Inevitably, doing research led her on to other composers of the period including Elgar and Vaughan Williams. This evolved over the years, and her research began to expand. 

Having performed The Lark Ascending, Midori wanted to know more about Vaughan Williams' music and this led her to the Violin Sonata, which with the Six Studies in English Folksong (1926) and Romance and Pastorale (1912-14), made a complete set of his violin and piano music with the sonata as the main feature. A nice 60 minutes of music for a single disc. 

The launch concert for the disc is on 9 July 2022 at Leith Hill Place (Vaughan Williams' childhood home, now owned by the National Trust) when she and pianist Simon Callaghan will be performing the music from the album. She and Simon are returning to Leith Hill Place on 12 October 2022 for a 150th birthday concert for Vaughan Williams.

But while this is very much a Vaughan Williams year, at the time we chatted she was in Japan doing research for her PhD on the music of Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), a very different style to Vaughan Williams and Delius. When asked about the link between the three composers, she doesn't really have an answer; the link is her. She identifies as Japanese, is a violinist and a composer. And these link through to all three composers. As a composer, she learns from Takemitsu and she is hoping to perform his music in the UK. At the moment her focus is on her research but in the future, there might be concerts or an album.

Midori Komachi and Simon Callaghan at  Leith Hill Place (Photo: Oliver Bowring / Musicarta Media)
Midori Komachi and Simon Callaghan at  Leith Hill Place (Photo: Oliver Bowring / Musicarta Media)

Vaughan Williams: Complete Works for Violin and Piano - Midori Komachi, Simon Callaghan - MusiKaleido. Further information from Midori's website

9 July 2022: Album Launch Concert at Leith Hill Place - Midori Komachi, Simon Callaghan - book tickets from EventBrite

Never miss out on future posts by following us

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog

  • A romantic woodland walk with Igor Levit and Simon Bode at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • i berzs, i smilgas... (and a birch and grasses...) - Latvian song across the generations from Emils Melngailis & Kristaps Petersons - record review
  • Precious Things: a lovely survey of Bernard Hughes' recent choral music from Epiphoni Consort on Delphian - record review
  • Hearing with new ears: Italian pianist Pina Napolitano wants her Conway Hall recital Tempo e Tempi to make the music of Carter more familiar and that of Beethoven more unfamiliar - interview
  • Returning the work to its Opera Comique roots: an engaging new Carmen from Opera Holland Park that adjusts tradition rather than reinventing it - opera review
  • Emotional atmospheres: a wonderfully lucid production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin opens Opera Holland Park's 2022 season - opera review
  • Real music-making of the highest standards: the Swiss youth orchestra "il mosaico" is caught on tour in Italy by composer Edward Lambert - concert review
  • Premiered in Norwich in 1936, the Norfolk & Norwich Festival give a celebratory performance of Vaughan Williams' Five Tudor Portraits - concert review
  • A forgotten voice from an earlier era: Mr Onion's Serenade - Mandolin Music of the Edwardian Era - record review
  • What a lovely night: an evening inspired by Jenny Lind's charity concerts in Norwich - concert review
  • Enjoyment and discovery: Paul McCreesh and Gabrieli Consort & Players in Bach's Ascension Oratorio at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Adventurous and exciting: So Percussion and Caroline Shaw at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival - concert review
  • Time corkscrews inwards: Tom Coult on clocks, time & humanity in Alice Birch & his new opera Violet - interview
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month