Friday, 24 July 2009
Toru Takemitsu Green London Sinfonietta CD
There is an old photograph where a boyish Oliver Knussen towers head and shoulders over Toru Takemitsu. It captures the rapport between them. This is only the third release on the Sinfonietta’s own label, but it’s fitting that it should feature Takemitsu. Ozawa and Boulez may have premiered the works on this recording, but the relationship between the composer, Knussen and the Sinfonietta was special. This recording contains excerpts from an important Takemitsu retrospective, sponsored by the Sinfonietta in 1998.
Takemitsu said that Green was written "from a wish to enter into the secrets of Debussy’s music". Swathes of string sound revolve, changing coloration as starker, more dominant brass and woodwinds enter. Then, in the last few moments there’s a breakthrough into more vernal openness, the emerging stillness accentuated with the sound of a muted bell.
Arc was written specifically around the idea of a garden, which in Japanese culture is a metaphor for nature itself. Japanese gardens evoke in miniature much wider elements of landscape. At their most abstract, they may seem no more than rocks and sand. Monks who sweep the lines in the sand of these gardens do so as a spiritual exercise: they are recreating symbolic waves, oceans, and limitless horizons for the soul. Businessmen sometimes have a tray garden, to escape without leaving the office.
Not all Japanese gardens are quite so ascetic, though. The vast majority are filled with living plants, rocks, water. This is the type of garden I imagine Takemitsu was most at home in, full of colour, light and movement. At some periods of western garden history, gardens were formally structured to keep nature at bay. A Japanese garden is quite the opposite. It exists to bring the freedom of nature back into human life. Hence the rocks and water, bridges and hidden vistas that only reveal themselves when you are in the garden, involving yourself in its life. Even fallen leaves are part of the concept: the sight of maple leaves floating down a stream has inspired many a poet. Nothing could be further from this approach to nature than the serried rows of bug-free rosebushes in a western winter.
There is a film in which Takemitsu is shown sitting in a garden, explaining how it is a metaphor for music. A garden is like an orchestra, he says, consisting of lots of different elements which a musician can arrange in whatever order seems best. You can increase the impact of some elements by massing them, or extend their colours by planting with others that complement the palette. Sometimes some elements capture the eye, such as autumn leaves, while others remain a backbone, like pines. Textures vary: sometimes the delicacy of spring blossom, sometimes the tough character of tree bark. Then, too, there are extras, maybe the sound of water trickling from a bamboo pipe, or the chirping of crickets, or wind blowing through leaves. Or even the pattern of shade thrown by a cloud in the sky. A gardener works with nature, not against it. Thus a composer works with an orchestra, extending it and encouraging it to grow, but finding his ideas organically and in balance.
Thus with Arc, Takemitsu’s first explicitly "garden" work, we enter on a six part journey of exploration. Its foundation is a hum on strings that drones like a flatline. It is a low, steady murmur, from which sudden sparks of sound shoot out, gradually getting denser and more animated. The piano enters, at first tentatively, then joyously skittish as sounds around it grow. Horns, clarinet, woodblocks, trombone and other instruments can clearly be heard in short, impressionistic flashes. The steady murmuring strings return, but this time their individual voices are more defined. Sharp, sudden dissonances break the pace, and a clarinet soars up the scale. In the third movement, cellos and basses pick up the murmur and gradually it turns into a wild dance, tantalising sounds coming from all sides in quick succession. This movement wasn’t scored conventionally, and there’s no mistaking its vitality. The lower notes of the piano resonate with depth and darkness. Then with a swooping crescendo, the music transforms again. With scuttling, scraping figures the music subsides again. The piano’s sonorities now become dry, toneless taps, and even the rumbling murmur fades. The piano gets a bit of time on its own, so to speak, but the orchestra returns full force, led by a fast-paced brass fanfare. In the coda, the susurration of the strings asserts the primacy of their theme.
The video clip is pretty rough, plenty of background noise. But in a way that's good because you listen on two levels, to the orchestra and the world sound. On the disc the thunder's clearer. It's a very Takemitsu concept for he definitely lived in the world, and believed that music was part of the joy of existence.
The recording to get is Rolf Hind, London Sinfonietta, conducted by Oliver Knussen, on the London Sinfonietta's own label - support the orchestra, buy the disc.