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PERFORMING ARTS

The Posthumous Rush to Toru Takemitsu

Review: Three new CDs go with the flow, and add to the legacy of Japan's otherworldly music man.

April 05, 1998|Mark Swed | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

*** TAKEMITSU: "From me flows what you call Time," "Twill by Twilight," Requiem. Nexus; Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Carl St.Clair, conductor. (Sony Classical)

**** TAKEMITSU: "My Way of Life," "Family Tree," "Ceremonial," Requiem, Air. Saito Kinen Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa, conductor. (Philips)

** THE MUSIC OF TAKEMITSU. I Fiamminghi, Rudolf Werthen, conductor. (Telarc)

The Takemitsu steamroller just keeps rolling. Two years after his death, the Japanese composer of serene, subtle and startlingly beautiful music seems with us more than ever. His works appear more and more in the concert hall, as we've seen all season. Films he scored are now being appreciated not just because they are classics of Japanese cinema (such as "Women of the Dunes" and "Ran") but also because of his contributions (Lincoln Center just finished a Takemitsu film festival). The discography grows.

There is actually something eerily appropriate in this posthumous pouncing on music of such gentle, otherworldly spirit. Toru Takemitsu was haunted by the ephemeral. He once said of Isamu Noguchi that the sculptor's works were not end results but expressions of "an unrestrainable desire for eternity, filled with beginning anticipation." Surely Takemitsu was also speaking of himself, and as time passes we see that more clearly.

It is just that sense of music as something that intangibly flows through time, something that we neither start nor stop but just tap into, that Takemitsu was after in his utterly bewitching percussion concerto "From me flows what you call Time," the centerpiece of the Pacific Symphony's latest CD. Carnegie Hall had commissioned it for its centennial in 1990, and Takemitsu, who took his title from a poem by Makoto Ooka, figured Carnegie was a place where music had been flowing for 100 years. So he made a half-hour work in which a limpid five-note motif seems to float so effortlessly in space that it is easy to imagine it inhabiting a concert hall (or your CD player) permanently.

The sound of this music is golden. The five percussion soloists play all manner of gongs, cymbals and bells. The heavens are evoked in the concert hall by five celestial bells in the balcony. Percussionists ring them by pulling festive colored ribbons that stream over the audience, and the piece ends in their pealing. The orchestra's function is to provide cushions of sensuous harmonic color, which was a Takemitsu trademark. These beautiful sounds have no structural purpose other than to seduce.

Originally written for Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony, a considerably more polished ensemble than the Orange County orchestra, Takemitsu's score sounds here especially bright and focused but lacking in sweetness. The Canadian percussion ensemble Nexus, which also joined the Bostonians for the premiere, is superb. But conductor Carl St.Clair is too slow; he places too much weight on phrases that need to just be. And Sony, of all labels, missed a technological opportunity. The recorded sound is true, but if ever a recording should be surround-sound encoded, this is it.

St.Clair's slow and emphatic approach is not disastrous in the concerto, but it is in "Twill by Twilight" and Requiem. These works, like so many by Takemitsu, are informed by what the composer called "undying death." A small, delicate man of fragile health, Takemitsu came to music by listening to it on the radio as a teenager while convalescing from pneumonia. Requiem, a gripping short work for string orchestra and the first Takemitsu work to capture international attention, was written in 1957 while the composer was critically ill with tuberculosis. "Twill by Twilight," a sumptuous lyric composition of patchwork phrases, came about 20 years later as memorial to American composer Morton Feldman, with whom Takemitsu had much in common musically.

Serious as these works are, they are not quite as doleful nor are they quite so sentimental as St.Clair makes them seem. Indeed, Takemitsu loved to be quirky, to do the unexpected. In his film music he often went against character, creating love music for the battle field in "Ran" or that unforgettable, sternly beautiful music that accompanies the mushroom cloud in "Black Rain."

Ozawa's new recording on Philips, containing the first recordings of "Family Tree" and "My Way of Life," offers a look at this quirkier side to the composer and is wonderful in every way.

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