a closer listen

haruka nakamura PIANO ENSEMBLE ~ Hikari

Haruka Nakamura‘s Hikari (Light) is the concluding segment of a trilogy, but it’s fair to call it a culmination rather than a sequel.  The 2-disc set revisits the artist’s best performances with Piano Ensemble, and at 85 minutes (plus bonus tracks) offers a generous serving, like a concert.  All three can be found on the Kitchen label, which in recent years has been known to release albums at the end of the year ~ this one is more suited for autumn, and we’re glad to have it now.

The presentation is noteworthy (pun intended), as the discs and copious liner notes arrive in an ivory-colored hardbound box.  We’re not sure why it took the reviewer at Norman Records five minutes to open it; ours opened easily.  Once inside, we started to realize that more than the color was gold.  As those leaves begin to turn, we all feel the sense of an ending.  The same is true of this set, the last with this current incarnation, whose final concert took place at Tokyo’s St. Mary’s Cathedral on 21 July.  Nakamura (piano) is joined by an 8-piece chamber ensemble, the 9-person CANTUS choir and 14-year-old vocalist Urara, and their notes are drenched in a mood of celebratory departure.

The music engenders an uplifting spirituality.  This should come as no surprise, given the church settings, the description of the songs as “sacred hymns” and the overriding quote from John 1:5: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  As the performances stretch to the quarter-hour mark, they accumulate transcendence.  The piano notes leap from tender to triumphant.  The orchestra rides on a shifting sea.  Melodic lines separate, come together and explode in joy.  Such is especially apparent on “SIN”, which sounds more like grace as it ends in an ivory waltz.

Finally one feels a sense of purity.  Nakamura has played at Hiroshima’s Memorial Cathedral of World Peace, and his entire output leans toward healing.  From the clean packaging to the crisp packaging to the clarity of sound, Hikari is a balm.  These have been the last songs I’ve played over the course of many nights over the last month, as the beaches have shut down, the evenings have grown cold, the company has gone home.  The music embodies the attitude I desire: not sorrow, but gratitude.

The ensemble must have felt a sense of completion after the release of this collection, two weeks after their final performance.  The performers have visited their back catalog, selected their favorite songs, and produced definitive versions of each.  They’ve shared these songs at sold-out performances.  And now they’ve given their fans a tactile gift, soft to the touch and a blessing to the ears.  They’ve even saved the best for last:  new piece “Todai” (“Lighthouse”), which comes across just like its title: a confident light, shining in the darkness, guiding the way to safety.  (Richard Allen)

Available here