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Moscow Soloists & Yuri Bashmet - Tan Dun/Takemitsu etc

Gramophone October 2008
This is the first recording of … Tan Dun's Pipa Concerto, and it's an absolute knockout. With strong, vigorous direction from Yuri Bashmet and some wonderfully extrovert playing from both the Moscow Strings and well known pipa exponent Wu Man, Tan's overt theatricality bursts forth like a rampant Chinese dragon. Bashmet is the soloist in both Nostalghia and Elegia, and it would be difficult to find a better advocate for these works.”
Sunday Times - 25.5. 08
Tan Dun’s four-movement Pipa Concerto...is, as one might expect, eclectic, vibrant, colourful and immediate...Wu Man plays the pipa - a Chinese-style lute - beautifully. [In Hayashi's Viola Concerto] Yuri Bashmet gives the viola solo part with his usual powerfully rich tone, and he is equally good on the violin in Takemitsu’s Nostalghia (1988), a meditative tribute to the film director Andrei Tarkovsky. The Moscow Soloists, superb throughout, also give three extracts from Takemitsu’s large canon of film music.
BBC Music Magazine - Barry Witherden
Takemitsu and Hayashi, both Japanese, absorbed European traditions so thoroughly (Takemitsu drawing on the French Impressionists, Hayashi on East-European figures) that one might not readily identify their origins, although once you sink into Nostalghia and Funeral Music from the film scores it is clear they are imbued with Japanese sensibility. The role of Tan Dun’s native Chinese culture is more dominant. In this concerto the solo part is written for the lute-like pipa, with an ancestry stretching back 2,000 years. Wu Man is probably its most celebrated exponent, well-known for working with Western composers such as Terry Riley. Whilst favourably disposed to Tan Dun’s music, I sometimes feel the nuts and bolts holding it together are too obvious. This applies to several passages in this concerto. It’s colourful and full of incident, but the tracks by Takemitsu and Hayashi are more satisfying. Bashmet lingers lovingly over Takemitsu’s textures: Nostalghia is a good 20 per cent slower than I Fiamminghi/Werthen’s version on Telarc, but then Takemitsu’s attitude to tempo markings was notoriously subjective. The brief suite drawn from film cues is vibrant and atmospheric, and the rich, full sound of the Moscow Soloists is shown to particularly good effect here and in Elegia. For me Hayashi’s Concerto is a very welcome discovery.
FANFARE : July/Aug 2008
A surprising mixture of music...Toru Takemitsu and his 16-minute Nostalghia for violin and string orchestra is the most striking work offered here: an exquisite, haunting idyll of Mahlerian melancholy spun out of graceful Bergian harmony and Takemitsu's own pastoral sensitivity...Tan Dun's concerto for the pipa...[is] an exhilarating jumble of Eastern and Western instrumental styles and sonorities...the concerto offers plenty of surprises for the uninitiated.
Tan Dun is a highly prolific and versatile composer with a considerable output to his credit including orchestral music, concertos, vocal works, chamber music, operas as well as some noteworthy film scores. He often refers to old Chinese music, albeit viewed through the prism of contemporary music in an attempt to bridge the cultural gap between Eastern and Western musical traditions. The Pipa Concerto recorded here is no exception in this respect, were it only because of the use of a traditional Chinese instrument as soloist. It is a thorough reworking of a slightly earlier work, Ghost Opera for pipa and string quartet. This has been recast into four movements instead of five, and the string players are also requested to contribute "stomps, yips, yells, sighs and hand-slaps" thus emphasising the theatrical nature of the earlier work inspired, so we are told, by "the 4000-year-old tradition of Taoist funerals in which shamans communicate with spirits past and future". Some episodes of the concerto obviously have a ritualistic character, but the piece as a whole is best experienced as abstract music. The third movement, the concerto's slow centre, blends a pentatonic tune with the Prelude in C sharp minor from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier. The pipa is silent for some time during the Bach episode and re-enters with its own version of Bach's tune. The concerto concludes in a somewhat livelier mood.
Takemitsu's Nostalgia for violin and strings, commissioned by Yehudi Menuhin, was written as a tribute to the Russian film director Andrey Tarkovsky whose last completed film was entitled Nostalgia. This lovely and deeply-felt work is appropriately elegiac throughout and the music unfolds quietly as so much else in Takemitsu's output.
Takemitsu composed many film scores between 1956 and 1995. Some certainly remember his Mahler-inflected score for Kurosawa's Ran (1985). In 1994-1995 he arranged three excerpts from some earlier film scores as Three Film Scores for string orchestra heard here and first performed by the English String Orchestra conducted by William Boughton in 1995. The three movements are Music of Training and Rest from José Torres (1959, director Hiroshi Teshigahara), Funeral Music from Black Rain (1989, director Shohei Imamura) and Waltz from Face of Another (1966, director Hiroshi Teshigahara). The first 'movement' is something of a rarity in Takemitsu's output in that it includes some fast and vigorous music, whereas Funeral Music is an effective threnody with mild dissonance - the film is about the effects of the Hiroshima bomb's radiation on a young woman who walked through the city's ruins. In Face of Another, the leading character has suffered facial injury in an industrial accident and attempts to obtain a new face through plastic surgery. The Waltz suggesting the sense of loss of normality has slightly surreal overtones.
I must now admit that Hayashi's name and music are completely new to me, so that I cannot tell you much about his output and his music in general. The music of his fairly substantial Viola Concerto "Elegia" heard here is rather indebted to that of some East-European composers, such as Bartòk and even Janàček; none the worse for that. The work is cast as a diptych. The viola's dark-hued meditation opening the first panel is underpinned by pizzicato strings, but the music progressively gains momentum and develops further into a more animated section although the music remains mostly lyrical. The second panel opens with a long song-like melody played by the viola over a "pendulum-like" accompaniment in the strings. This basic material is developed and varied until the viola introduces a new theme with a slightly oriental flavour. Further development ensues until a cadenza-like episode is reached. The elegiac mood of the opening is resumed, albeit with variations, and the concerto ends quietly. Hayashi's Viola Concerto does not break any new ground; but, judging by its merits, I would certainly like to hear more of his music. This is a most welcome addition to the viola's repertoire.
The performances of these often beautiful works are excellent throughout and the recording is quite fine. There is much splendid music-making to be enjoyed in this very fine release. Well worth more than the occasional hearing.
De Moscow Soloists onder leiding van violist en dirigent Yuri Bashmet kijken op hun nieuwe album naar het Oosten. We ontmoeten drie componisten die de tradities van hun landen een confrontatie laten aangaan met de westerse wereld. Het feit dat alleen het tokkelinstrument de pipa door een oosterling bespeeld wordt doet niet af aan de overtuigingskracht van deze prachtig vastgelegde muziek.
Tan Dun is de bekendste Chinese componist van het moment. Opgegroeid in China ten tijde van de Culturele Revolutie, opereert hij al jaren vanuit New York. Hoe de ontdekking van de westerse klassieke muziek een eye-opener van jewelste was werd mooi getoond op een recent besproken DVD.
Zijn Concerto For String Orchestra And Pipa uit 1999, dat hier zijn plaatpremi�re beleeft, is een mooie introductie tot zijn werk. Het is losjes gebaseerd op het voor het Kronos strijkkwartet en de ook hier te horen pipaspeelster Wu Man geschreven Ghost Opera. De vorm is wel meer conventioneel: de muzikanten hoeven niet tal van schalen met water, papier en slagwerkinstrumenten te bedienen, maar beperken zich naast hun eigen instrument tot wat schreeuwen en klappen nu en dan. Gebleven is het uitvoerig citeren uit Bach, eerst letterlijk door de strijkers, dan omgezet in een Chinese variant en uiteindelijk op de pipa. Tan Dun brengt met veel bravoure een unieke synthese tot stand in de vorm van schitterende, zeer overtuigende en aansprekende muziek.
Dat gebeurt ook voor de bekendste Japanse componist van de afgelopen eeuw, Toru Takemitsu, ooit een leraar van Tan Dun. Sterk be�nvloed door vooral het impressionisme van Debussy cre�erde hij een even belangrijk als omvangrijk oeuvre, waarin muziek voor films een belangrijke plaats inneemt. Hij bewerkte drie fragmenten uit zijn soundtracks tot een suite voor strijkorkest, met een aanstekelijk walsje als uitsmijter. Nostalghia is geen filmmuziek, maar wel ge�nspireerd op de film van Andrej Tarkovski, net zoals het ook naar deze film genoemde album van pianist Fran�ois Couturier. Prachtig ijle, melancholieke muziek, met een glansrijke hoofdrol voor Yuri Bashmet op viool.
In het concert van de minst bekende van het gepresenteerde drietal componisten, Hikaru Hayashi, is Bashmet op de altviool te horen, waarbij Roman Balashov als vervangend dirigent optreedt. Het stuk doet sterk Oost-Europees aan � ik zou het zonder voorkennis absoluut niet in Japan gesitueerd hebben. Vooral Bart�k lijkt een belangrijke inspiratiebron te zijn geweest. In twee lange delen, die samen een half uur duren wordt veel passie getoond en spanning opgebouwd, al ben ik er nog niet van overtuigd geraakt dat het werk van Hayashi kwaliteiten heeft van het niveau van Tan Dun en Takemitsu.
Dat neemt niet weg dat dit zowel een bijzondere als erg aantrekkelijke CD is. Unieke muziek, prachtig gespeeld en ook nog eens erg mooi opgenomen.
LONDON EVENING STANDARD - Norman Lebrecht 2.4.08 ****
There are few pleasures greater than being swept away by music you didn't expect to like. Tan Dun, a Chinese émigré, drifted from his early concert moorings to commercial Hollywood tracks, while the Messiaen-like whimsy of the late Toru Takemitsu never kept me awake for long. Here, though, both fire on fresh cylinders. Tan's concerto for pipa and string orchestra is a fusion of plangent east and minimalist west with episodes that veer from marshmallow emotion to culture-clash bemusement. At one point, mid-section, the whole ensemble stops and retunes to the pipa's earthy pitch. Listen, too, for the Tibetan bells. Takemitsu opens with a morose elegy for the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, followed by captivating settings of three arthouse movie scores. Yuri Bashmet leads the band with the fastidious curiosity of a Michelin musical gourmet; Wu Man plays a mean pipa. The filler on disc is a viola concerto from the Japanese film composer Hikaru Hayashi, outclassed in this company.
Musical Criticism 6.6.08 - Stephen Graham ****
Tan Dun's Concerto for String Orchestra and Pipa, based on his earlier work Ghost Opera for string quartet and pipa, is a thoroughly postmodern work. It is full of loosely organised stylistic reminiscences, from Bach to Bartok to Chinese traditional music, and it makes no apologies for its plural nature. It generates much of its tension and energy from a dialogue of aesthetics between east and west, and between experimentalism and populism.
As is common in works of this nature, an overarching sense of musical argument and line is absent from Tan's concerto. But in the face of such irrepressible animation and sheer musical dynamism as is on display in the interpretation of the work by Wu Man and the Moscow Soloists under Yuri Bashmet, such criticisms are largely redundant. The piece moreover moves so far into the realms of inconstant irreverence as to stake out for itself a sort of idiomatic unity. This bizarre sense of total non-integration, and thus negative integration, does much to bolster its import. Tan Dun upholds the initial premise of collage and eclecticism to such a degree that in the end his concerto amounts to a satisfactory and cogent description of postmodern aesthetics.
The fact that the score and interpretation so clearly revel in both unwieldy excitement (movements one, two and four) and luxurious beauty (the frankly wonderful gradual modulation of Bach's C# minor Prelude from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier into an Eastern infused cocktail of sliding and plucking strings set against purely Eastern pipa sentimentality in the third) helps a lot. In the more up-tempo movements the composer shows his intelligence by opposing east and west not through the easy contrast of pipa and string colour, but by skilfully constructing panels of music where the instruments meld into a unified force of either Western or Eastern influence. The instruments never sound opposed (with the exception of the third movement); it is the music itself that travels here and there. Wu Man shows herself a consummate performer, whether she be sounding delicate and idiomatically Chinese percussive melody lines, or throwing forth volleys of unpitched rhythms in response to clusters of string fervour. The total focus of the performance is at times astonishing. Difficult entries, particularly the many unison vocalisations the musicians are often required to suddenly ejaculate, are without exception faultlessly completed. Bashmet always instils forward momentum and purpose to the musical flow, whilst ensuring each detail of the exciting score is clear amongst the clamour. Particular credit should be given to the string players, who without trouble modulate frequently between eastern shadings and articulations, and Western dynamics and gestures. This music may be too fecund, too fervent, for some, but anyone curious to hear a statement on behalf of the kind of thing the trumpeter Jon Hassell has called 'wordly music', should look no further than this new Onyx recording of Tan Dun's eccentric concerto.
The performance of Takemitsu's elegiac Nostalghia for solo violin and string orchestra (1987), written in memory of Andrey Tarkovsky, is somewhat less satisfactory. Roman Balashov, who conducts this piece along with the Hayashi concerto, does a good job of catching the essential stillness and harsh poignancy of the music. Like much of Takemitsu's concert music, the aesthetics and material of the work seem as much inspired by the static and ghostly penumbras of a lot of Japanese instrumental and theatrical music as they are by the common Western models normally associated with him (Messiaen, Scriabin, Berg etc). Balashov's attitude of interpretation, seeking as it does to convey anxious reflection, regret, and to evoke the very fragility of sound (à la late Nono), is thus prudent. He wills the musicians of the string orchestra to great outbursts of reservation, and to moments of very busy repose. The problem with the performance is that soloist and ensemble seem to pulling in two different directions. Bashmet, here taking the role of violin soloist, seems intent on imagining the piece as overwrought, demonstrative, and angry; in his hands the solo line becomes an outpouring of pain. The disparity of effect between Bashmet and ensemble can certainly be striking at times: those moments where the spectral slides and echoes of the strings frame and elevate the fuller remonstrations of the soloist are a case in point: but it is largely a cause of regret in this interpretation, to my ears at least. In fact it is only about three quarters of the way through this single movement work that the two sides find concerted purpose together, as they coalesce in a collective sequence of overflowing anguish that proves a highpoint of the performance. For the remainder we are left with a disparity of effect that does the spirit of the music few favours, though the standard of the ensemble is so high here that the performance is certainly worthy of some attention.
The disc continues with an interlude of sorts: a selection of small moments from three of Takemitsu's many film scores. If the decision to include these short movements seems peculiar (particularly as each one appears isolated from their original musical and visual contexts), it can at least be said that they work well in terms of providing contrast of pace and extended flavour for the disc. The quite detailed (and unaccredited) liner notes moreover fill in some of the gaps surrounding the origins and subjects of the music. These mini-movements are performed expertly by the Moscow Soloists, now with Bashmet back at the helm, with the variegated moods of each little piece flitting by compellingly. The first ('Music of Training and Rest' from Jos� Torres) is forthright, bluesy, and repetitive in Bashmet's hands. The second ('Funeral Music' from Black Rain) appears dark and affecting, and the third ('Waltz' from Face of Another), the most derivative of the three, is articulated quite effectively as neo-classical and regretfully nostalgic.
The final work presented on this diverse collection of Eastern Western music is Hikaru Hayashi's Concerto for Viola and Strings, 'Elegia'. The preceding pieces exposed different ways of approaching the Western classical tradition somewhat from the outside, and Hayashi's expressionistic, agitated work adds its own two cents in this regard. It maintains the artifice of national boundaries by operating almost entirely (although there are some notably Eastern gestures in the second movement) within a European, early twentieth century idiom. Over the course of the work's two movements the composer presents a fresh take on symphonic modes of discourse; the first movement for example seems to shift after the halfway point from a sonata type structure into a loosely integrated pot-pourri of themes, before concluding on an affective and summation-like viola cadenza. The relation between soloist and string ensemble is always dialogic. Each side presents, particularly in the fluent and playfully eclectic second movement, commentary and response to the other; the mordancy and power of the ensemble for example always undercuts the apparently heroic status of the soloist. The performers are all on top form here, particularly Bashmet, who makes up for his unruly interpretation of the Takemitsu concerto with a virtuosic display of confident and assured string playing. He projects emphatically, always sitting comfortably at the forefront of the sound even in his most hushed moments, and he appears in total command of his line and its relation to the concurrent events of the string orchestra. Balashov again excels, coercing his players into absolute unity of purpose and execution. He brings humour to the score, especially in the toing and froing of the second movement. Like the soloist, Balashov wrings moments of real force from Hayashi's interesting if somewhat derivative music, and he ultimately shows himself a fine partner for the formidable Bashmet.
The sound here, as elsewhere on the disc, is clear and immediate: the louder moments appear galvanic, whilst the subtleties of, for example, the Takemitsu concerto, are easily perceived and appreciated. An interesting release.