Tan Dun: Pipa Concerto; Hayashi: Viola Concerto; Takemitsu: Nostalghia

Wu Man (pipa); Yuri Bashmet (violin & viola); Moscow Soloists (ONYX4027)

6 June 2008 4 stars

Tan Dun: Pipa Concerto etcTan 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 José 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.

By Stephen Graham