“Brahms, Schumann, Beethoven: we know them and we love to listen to them. But we also have to rediscover the things that have been forgotten – or which have not yet been discovered.” Pianist Hisako Kawamura speaks animatedly as she explains the concept behind her upcoming concerts at Suntory Hall in Tokyo.

Hisako Kawamura
© Marco Borggreve

Kawamura won the prestigious Suntory Music Award in 2020, granted for “notable contributions to the development of Western-style music in Japan.” But this isn’t just an award, she tells me. She sees it as a platform. “I am able to show what kind of musical culture I am dreaming of.”

Kawamura is most known for her interpretations of the big beasts of the piano repertoire. She has previously recorded works by Rachmaninov, Chopin, Mozart, Prokofiev, and Beethoven, among others. But for her Suntory commemorative concerts, she is also including pieces by composers who are less familiar. Rebecca Clarke and Akio Yashiro stand with Robert Schumann, Amy Beach with Brahms. “My concept”, she says, is “mixing many cultures, many points of view together.”

It all started in lockdown. Kawamura says it became a “thinking period” that allowed her to re-evaluate how she approached programming. In particular, she began seriously to explore music by women composers. Before lockdown she had played “maybe five pieces by women”. But working together on online presentations with her students introduced her to a wealth of women composers, whose music she is now performing. She is very clear, though, that she is not promoting these pieces because they were written by women. They are “fantastic pieces” that have been unfairly forgotten because of the composers’ gender. “We can change it”, Kawamura insists. “We can actively change our programmes.”

Hisako Kawamura
© Marco Borggreve

She is giving the first of her two concerts with the UK-based Doric Quartet. Although she has known the ensemble for over a decade, this is the first time that they will play together. Kawamura is excited about the collaboration. “They play so musically”, she says, “listening carefully to each other, to the harmony, and they make music in a way like painting a picture.”

An ability to conjure up musical images will certainly be useful for their performance of Clarke’s 1921 Piano Trio, an extremely theatrical and sometimes visually suggestive piece. Born in England in 1886, British composer Rebecca Clarke is one of the women being championed by Kawamura. She was, in her own lifetime, both a celebrated composer and viola player.

“We can hear the string player Clarke in her music”, Kawamura says. “She knows her instruments very well.” Perhaps the best-known of Clarke’s works today is her 1919 Viola Sonata, which has become a staple of the viola repertoire. But Clarke wrote extensively for a variety of chamber ensembles, including a Rhapsody for cello and piano (1923), Dumka for violin, viola and piano (1940), Prelude, Allegro and Pastorale for clarinet and viola (1941), and the Piano Trio.

The trio was critically acclaimed in its day. When it was first performed in London, reviewers called it “quite brilliant” – that it showed Clarke to be “a frank disciple of modernity.” It opens with something like a musical battle-cry, chords furiously hammered out on the piano. “It is not straightforwardly beautiful music”, Kawamura says. “You can feel her complex psychology in her music. This is such strong music and I hear so many ‘why’s?’. I like this music because it is very complex. There are angry, fighting emotions.”

Clarke partly achieves this feeling of fury and difficulty through her manipulation of rhythm. In an interview Clarke gave in 1922, the composer said: “in rhythm lies the future development of music.” Kawamura hears this in the trio. She says that Clarke’s approach to rhythm is definitive, and “in the third movement it changes all the time from regular rhythm to irregular. All the time also there are dissonances and these harmonies that make problems, and create difficulties in playing together!”

This complexity is a quality shared with both the Schumann Piano Quintet and Yashiro Piano Sonata on the same programme. Kawamura is drawn to Yashiro’s music “because it is very well constructed”, and she wants to be able “to share what great things Japanese composers have composed.” Born in Tokyo in 1929, Akio Yashiro was a student of both Olivier Messiaen and Nadia Boulanger. His music combines influences from both Japan and central Europe.

“He didn’t just copy French music”, Kawamura explains. He brought together the “most important points” of his identity, “and that’s originality.” The Piano Sonata has a modified, personalised sonata structure, and in the Adagio sections Yashiro draws on gagaku, traditional Japanese court music. “This mixture makes me very happy.”

Kawamura’s second concert sees her join the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra to play Amy Beach’s Piano Concerto. Premiered in 1900 with the composer herself at the piano, it’s surprising that Beach’s concerto is not more widely performed today. She was the first American woman to achieve widespread fame and recognition as a composer, and the concerto is a Romantic tour de force.

“I love her music because of her romantic, expressive melodies and harmonies”, Kawamura tells me. “She lets off her emotions like a bomb, an exploding bomb in the music. She says everything in her music that she was not allowed to say in society.” Kawamura is not alone in hearing autobiographical elements in this concerto – others have also suggested that we might read Beach’s life into the tempestuous piece, encouraged by Beach’s own comment that compositions can be “a veritable autobiography”, and the fact that the concerto incorporates themes from some of her earlier songs.

In many ways, Beach’s biography is a litany of setbacks and restrictions. She had to circumvent her mother’s objections to her learning the piano, and later in life critics insisted on judging her as a woman first and an artist second. When she married a doctor twenty-four years her senior at the age of eighteen, he pressured Beach to curtail her budding career as a pianist, as was standard for upper-class women of the day. After her wedding in 1885, Beach was restricted to giving only two public performances per year, donating any income to charity.

But this is not the whole of Beach’s story. She was a remarkably determined woman, and asserted considerable agency to build a professional career as a composer. And her marriage was complex. Although her husband disapproved of performance, he did encourage her to compose (even if he did not want her to take professional tuition). Beach herself said that “it was he more than any one else who encouraged my interest upon the field of musical composition in the larger forms”.

Beach composed prolifically, producing major works such as her Gaelic Symphony (1896), the Mass in E-Flat Major (1892), Piano Quintet (1905), and the Piano Concerto (1899). In four movements and lasting nearly thirty-five minutes, the concerto is a titanic piece. Henry Wood once said of Beach that she “played like a goddess”, and certainly this piece pushes at the limits of a pianist’s abilities. Beach wrote of performance that “the joy of giving your highest powers is beyond description… When I play there is only limitless enthusiasm and enjoyment”, and both exhilaration and dedication come across in the work.

Hisako Kawamura
© Marco Borggreve

Kawamura has paired it with Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto. It’s an apt partner – he was one of Beach’s influences, alongside Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Dvořák. I ask her how she feels about tackling two such gargantuan works in the same concert. She chuckles. “If not now, then when?” She quotes the Suntory’s founder, Shinjiro Torii, whose motto was to adopt “the spirit of bold ambition.” (Torii’s company Suntory pioneered Japan’s whisky industry.) And with her new programmes, this is precisely the spirit that Kawamura is embracing. “Try”, she says, smiling. “Try everything that you would like to do.”

Hisako Kawamura plays Yashiro, Clarke and Schumann with the Doric Quartet in the Blue Rose Small Hall at Suntory Hall on 9th March, and Brahms and Beach with Kazuki Yamada and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in the Main Hall on 13th March.

This interview was sponsored by Suntory Hall.