Diana Damrau excels in Japanese Children Songs

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Japanese Children Songs
Diana Damrau, soprano
Orchestre symphonique de Montreal / Kent Nagano, conductor
Analekta AN2 9131
***** 

This disc of 22 Japanese children songs is a complete delight. Conductor Kent Nagano was singularly responsible for its genesis. The accompanying booklet gives a detailed account of how Nagano, a third generation Japanese from California, started researching these songs after hearing his wife sing them to their daughter. These hauntingly beautiful songs, newly orchestrated, were first heard in two live performances in February-March 2010 at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier in Montreal, and the part of the recording involving the soloist was recorded in Germany in June 2011. Nagano could not have picked a better singer or finer interpreter than Diana Damrau.

In 2011, Damrau was experiencing motherhood first hand with her two children Alexander and Colyn.  She brings the right qualities to these songs, not just vocal beauty but a palpable sense of love and tenderness – one can imagine her singing these to her own children. Damrau had a big success as Lucia in the Metropolitan Opera tour to Japan in 2011, right after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. I imagine how this visit inspired her to make this recording. Singing in Japanese must have been a real challenge for the German soprano. To my ears she is extremely convincing. But to be sure, I consulted a Japanese music colleague who is a native speaker. According to her, not only is Damrau’s singing wonderful, her diction is good.  Damrau’s pronunciation of K and S are that of a non-Japanese, but other than that, she’s very good at articulating Japanese words. These songs are about Old Japan, from the late 19th Century to 1930, with sentimental text expressing a longing for the past. It really bears no resemblance to Japan in the 21st Century.

These songs aren’t really sung by Japanese children today. However, one can still find them on the concert stage sung by professional singers, particularly sopranos and it’s still popular among middle-aged and elderly people. The Montreal Children’s Choir is absolutely lovely, and Kent Nagano conducts these songs leading Montreal Symphony Orchestra with great affection. The booklet with Japanese text and translations plus several essays is beautifully presented and informative.  This disc is more than a curiosity, but one every music lover should explore. It ranks among the best Canadian releases of 2014.   

– Joseph So
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About Author

Joseph K. So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, but his first love is music, which he studied as an undergraduate student at the State University of New York. Since seeing his first live opera – La Gioconda with Renata Tebaldi at the Met in 1967, the singing voice became his lifelong favourite instrument. In addition to his longtime contributions to La Scena Musicale and The Music Scene, he is Associate Editor of Opera Canada and a frequent contributor to Musical Toronto.

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