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Izumi Tateno and Seppo Kimanen – dialogue between a Japanese pianist and a Finnish cellist

by Seppo Kimanen

“This was a pianist of a calibre that I had not yet encountered in Finland,” recalls Seppo Kimanen – cellist, non-fiction author and founder of the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival – thinking back to his first meeting with pianist Izumi Tateno, who divides his time between Japan and Finland.

I spent a large part of summer 1965 in the beautiful region of North Karelia, practising Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata. Someone told me that a wonderfully skilled Japanese pianist named Izumi Tateno was visiting Joensuu. I had the idea of getting in touch with him to ask whether he would be interested in playing the Shostakovich piece with me. He learned it in only a couple of days, and I was astonished at how effortlessly he mastered even the trickiest passages. This was a pianist of a calibre that I had not yet encountered in Finland.

That was the beginning of a friendship that was further reinforced when I married Japanese violinist Yoshiko Arai five years later. In 1971, the three of us formed a trio, and Izumi became one of the principal developers of the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in its second year of existence. Izumi Tateno and our trio performing under his name became one of the most popular acts at the festival. In those challenging early years, his input was vital: he had a wealth of information about music and a sensitivity for the unspoken feelings of other musicians. Through his connections, we brought a number of excellent Japanese musicians to Kuhmo. Having Michio Mamiya as Composer of the Year in the late 1970s was such a huge success that on the back of it we were able to present a large Japan-themed festival a couple of years later.

Our ensemble gave its first Tokyo recital in spring 1973. That was also my first visit to Japan. Izumi has since been arranging performance opportunities for numerous Finnish musicians in Japan. The high points of these Japanese-Finnish musical relations include two extensive tours arranged by Izumi for the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, with himself as soloist. It was on the strength of these successful tours that the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra was also invited to Japan.

It is now almost 58 years since our first meeting. I picked up the phone in Kyoto and called Izumi to ask how he is doing now. 

Cellist Seppo Kimanen has organized countless Japanese-Finnish musical events in the past decades. Photo: Yoshiko Arai

Finland – an unusual destination

Our conversation began with reminiscences across the decades. Izumi Tateno relocated to Helsinki in the early 1970s. “When I was young, Finland and the other northern countries felt like an interesting mystery,” recalls Tateno, now 86. “That’s why I decided to settle in Finland instead of more conventional choices like Vienna, Paris or London.” That decision was an unusual one and set Tateno apart from the mainstream of Japanese musicians. His career has been thriving ever since, proving that his decision was a sound one.

Soon after coming to Finland, Tateno began to perform Finnish piano music in Finland and Japan. “Up until the 1950s, Japan’s interest in Western music tended to focus very much on Germany. For myself, except for Robert Schumann I was more interested in French composers – Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen and Fauré. I was also attracted to many other composers not well known in Japan at the time, such as Scriabin, Janaček and Shostakovich,” Tateno says of his formative experiences.  

In the course of his extensive career, Tateno has performed and recorded music by numerous Finnish composers. As far back as in the 1970s I was astonished to find Japanese pianists beginning to talk about the music of [Finnish composers] Heino Kaski, Selim Palmgren, Pehr Henrik Nordgren, Leevi Madetoja, Einojuhani Rautavaara and others who were not that much performed even in Finland.

Seventy years ago, both Finland and Japan were out in the cold as far as the international powers that be in the world of classical music were concerned. International contacts were scarce after the Second World War. Finnish composers were struggling to emerge from the shadow of Sibelius, and Japanese musicians agonised over how to combine their native musical tradition with contemporary Western musical trends. Both countries had only a limited number of high-calibre soloists. Tateno feels that this problem is no more: “There are plenty of top-notch performers, and composers engage comfortably with contemporary trends without sacrificing their originality.”

I agree. It took an extensive period of economic growth and education, but today both countries punch above their weight as far as their musical impact is concerned. The best Finnish conductors, soloists and composers are known worldwide in art music circles, and the impact of Japan’s active musical scene is not confined to Asia. In Tokyo alone, there are nine professional symphony orchestras, numerous amateur orchestras and a huge number of ensembles of all shapes and sizes.

“There are excellent orchestras in other major cities too,” Tateno points out. He does, however, note a major difference between our two countries regarding recitals. “In Japan, recitals attract audiences fairly well, but in Finland this culture is practically extinct.” A huge number of musicians and their agents make their living in Japan, where there is a healthy demand for European art music. This may be considered something of a wonder, as the government in Japan provides next to no support for Western music; almost all of the funding comes from the private sector.

Pianist Izumi Tateno in the Great Hall of the University of Helsinki after a concert organised by the Finnish-Japanese Society, celebrating Tateno's 77th anniversary. Photo: Pekka Lehtonen

Pioneer of piano music for the left hand

We talk about concert programmes for a while. “In Japan, as elsewhere, the majority of the repertoire is conservative, but recent contemporary styles are getting more and more performances,” says Tateno, confirming my impression. Tateno himself played a major role in establishing this trend. His solo career came to a dramatic turning point in January 2002 when he suffered a major seizure towards the end of a recital. This led to a partial paralysis, depriving him of the use of his right hand. But to everyone’s amazement, only 18 months later he was back on stage, playing piano with his left hand only. 

Tateno began commissioning new pieces. With skill and determination, he managed to create a completely new career, although in typical Japanese fashion he belittles his contribution: “I’m quite old now, so I only give 40 to 50 performances per year.” What is amazing is that he can draw a capacity crowd, even though his repertoire is almost exclusively contemporary music.

Composers had been dedicating pieces to Tateno throughout his career, but since 2004 he has received a flood of piano pieces for the left hand only. Through the foundation that he set up, Tateno has commissioned some 130 pieces, each of which he has performed at least five times. “Some of them I’ve performed up to 100 times. But what’s important is that every work must be performed more than once. The future use of commissioned compositions depends very much on publishers. Happily, Ongaku no tomo have begun publishing the works I have collected; there are now 25 titles out.” 

Concert organisers and agents typically request core repertoire, but Tateno’s charisma is in a class of its own, and as a result he does not need to cater to such requests. He might give an entire recital of recently composed works. He does name one exception, though: “I commissioned Japanese composer Kōichi Mitsunaga to write an arrangement for left hand only of Mozart’s Variations on ‘Ein Weib ist das herrlichste Ding’ KV 613.”

Tateno does not only commission music from Finnish and Japanese composers. Recently he has developed an interest in Iceland, because “there is originality and primeval force there”. The Sonata for left hand written for him by Thordur Magnusson is one of this year’s additions to his repertoire. I cannot help but observe that learning so many new works in less than 20 years is an almost superhuman achievement at his age.

“Well, these days I always have the music in front of me and never play from memory.”

Tateno points to two Finnish composers in particular among his commissioned pieces for the left hand: “The pieces by Kalevi Aho and Jukka Tiensuu are both good and popular.” Among Japanese composers, he points to the sonata Oni no seikatsu and the piano quintet Oni no gakkō by Ichirō Hirano.

One of the manifestations of Tateno’s life work is the Kanazawa Music Festival, where an audition for left-hand pianists is held every year. Izumi Tateno self-evidently chairs the jury. This year, he is happy that he will also be performing at Kanazawa. “It will be interesting to perform Janaček’s Capriccio with members of the Janaček Philharmonic Orchestra at the festival.”


Featured photo: Violinist Yoshiko Arai, Pianist Izumi Tateno and cellist Seppo Kimanen performing together as Trio Tateno. Photo: Trio Tateno