TAKEMITSU:  Romance.  Distance de F»e.  Hika.  Piano Pieces for Children (Breeze/Clouds).  Rain Tree Sketch.  From Far Beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog.  Orion.  Litany -- In Memory of Michael Vyner.  Rain Tree Sketch II -- In Memoriam Olivier Messiaen.  Between Tides.
Fujita Piano Trio
ASV DCA 1120 (F) (ADD)  TT:  71:42

Taking into consideration his scores for more than 90 films (and how he did love to go to the movies!), the late Toru Takemitsuís range was as wide as it was ecumenical—this despite the influences of Debussy early on, then Webern, and Olivier Messiaen still later. Yet his voice was his own whether it echoed ancestors or evoked occidental predecessors—as Strauss and Mahler had their own distinctive voices and vocabularies, albeit rooted in Wagner's music. The present superb disc includes music for violin, cello and piano—sometimes alone, sometimes dually, yet only in the title piece, Between Tides from 1993, as a trio. The music is presented chronologically, beginning with the four-minute piano Romance of 1948, revised in 1949 when he was just 19, but—having been a busboy in a U.S. servicemen's canteen until he contracted tuberculosis—thoroughly "Westernized" by American popular music. Nevertheless, Romance is French in character and weight, as is Distance de f»e of 1951 for violin and piano. Already in Distance, however, the influence of Messiaen can be heard, added to Debussy. The players perhaps wisely bypass the Second-Viennese period, notably the solo piano music that Yuji Takahashi and Australian Roger Woodward recorded definitively in times more adventurous than now, and go to Hika for violin and piano (1966). Here is Takemitsu fully emerged, butterfly fashion, without discarding what he found kindred in Western music—intervals have become bolder, sometimes unpredictable, with elegant dissonances now permanently in place.

Two Piano Pieces for Children composed in 1979 ("Breezes" and "Clouds") are as charming as they are brief, the first 0:54, the second 1:30. But "Clouds," far from suggesting Debussy's, are Americanized in a Cole Porter-Jerome Kern way, with tongue in cheek and addictively charming (like the collection of film music on Nonesuch/Warner). Rain Tree Sketch for piano (1982) is linked to music Takemitsu originally wrote for percussionists. There's been nothing quite like it, or him, since Debussy's mature piano works. From far beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog was written a year later as a test-piece for accompanied violinists in Japan's "Second International Music Competition," and adapts 12-note music to entirely personal ends—with only six notes in the "harmonic foreground," the rest in the background. That construction reminds one of the early Dorian Horizon for string ensemble, but Takemitsu had moved far forward in every other respect, and this music is haunting. It is also bloody difficult to perform, but that, too, is in the background: it requires of the listener a degree of spiritual repose to savor fully.

The 12-minute Orion for cello and piano followed within months, with the principal subject based on the three stars in that constellation's belt. (Solo percussion and orchestral placement in that damnably neglected Cassiopeia 14 years earlier likewise were based on a constellation pattern in the night sky, which came to Takemitsu in a dream.) The number three in various forms pervades Orion, which also exists in a version for cello and orchestra, extended to include two more movements: "and" (the second one, lasting 5 minutes), then Pleiades—the sum of which lasts nearly 26 minutes, one of Takemitsu's longest penultimate-period works. Next up, Litany is a two-movement piece from 1989 "in Memory of Michael Vyner," the new-music proselyte who founded and managed the London Sinfonietta. It harkens back to Takemitsu's first-performed work, Lento in due movimenti, composed in 1950 during his two-year hospitalization, not knowing whether he would survive or die. To those who share the composer's wavelength, it is an eerily introspective, sometimes angry work that ultimately transcends resignation but not sorrow. A second memorial follows—Rain Tree Sketch II—in Memorian Olivier Messiaen, composed in 1992—a miniature measured by length (3:38), but an expressive evocation of respect and affection with an echo of chimes throughout, and so much more compressed into its brief span.

The 1993 Trio which concludes this disc is a 15Ĺ minute work of substance, subtle variety, and in a sense summation (Takemitsu died in February 1996 after a long, agonizing illness). It embraces the eastern influences in Debussy's and Ravel's music as well as their quintessential "Frenchness," viewed from afar through an oriental prism. To anyone who knows Takesmitsu's works apart from his cinema scores, thereís never a question who the composer is, or his stature in the second half of the 20th-century. Interestingly, of all the authentically major composers who were simply not faddists (exempting some of Glass, Reich, and John Adams), only Takemitsu and Lutoslawski retained their identity to the end. Ligeti and Penderecki, who ranked beside (and sometimes ahead of) them, retrograded into past-styles without pertinence or viability. As for Pierre Boulez or Karlheinz Stockhausen, I'm still to be persuaded that either is authentically major - period, paragraph.

Takemitsu may be likened to elegant Japanese cuisine (we are not talking supermarket sushi here): once the palate has been teased, the appetite never goes away. I have neglected so far to mention the playing of the Fujita sisters—pianist Megumi, who is superb; violinist Arisa, close behind her, and cellist Honoka, who shares their company worthily—so let me say (plus kudos for their London producer and engineer in the Henry Wood Hall) that the Fujita Trio meet the composer's challenge with an artistry I will return to, perhaps often, in what time is left before I get to visit my parents, grandparents, and Toru too, in spirit.

R.D. (Sept. 2001)