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Tre Voci
Tōru TAKEMITSU (1930-1996)

And Then I Knew 't was Wind (1991) [15:02]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Sonata for flute, viola and harp (1910-13) [18:02]
Sofia GUBAIDULINA (b. 1931)
Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten (1980) [18:44]
Marina Piccinini (flute); Kim Kashkashian (viola); Sivan Magen (harp)
rec. April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano.
ECM NEW SERIES 2345 [52:07]

With the combination of flute, harp and viola you just know the sonorities are going to be transparent and luminous, and Toru Takemitsu’s And I Knew 't was Wind is a wonderful place to start. Takemitsu acknowledged the discovery of Debussy’s music as a transformational experience, and taking the same instrumentation as the French master’s Sonata was a logical step – indeed, his intention was that the two works should be performed alongside each other. The title is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson, and Takemitsu’s music resonates perfectly with her expressive but elusive words. There are alternative techniques demanded of the instruments but these are an enhancement rather than a leading motivation. You may not notice them all, though there are some exotic moments which could hardly come from a different composer or country. This is sublimely beautiful music and a late masterpiece by one of the twentieth century’s dominant figures.

Magnificently musical performing from the musicians on this perfectly balanced recording make this one of the best versions of Debussy’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp I’ve ever heard. There is something about the context, our ears sensitised by the Takemitsu piece, which makes the appearance of Debussy’s sometimes disarmingly simple melodic ideas all the finer. The musicians here are also not afraid to give the music a rare exotic tinge which you may not recognise from versions such as that with Jeffrey Khaner, Roberto Diaz and Elizabeth Hainen on the Vie label (review). This is an admirable performance, though I’m less keen on flautist Khaner’s thick vibrato at times. The beauty of Marina Piccinini’s playing is that she is distinctive, but also melts into the sonorities of the other instruments with real chamber-music sensitivity, something alas all too rare among flautists in general. Grammy award-winner Kim Kashkashian is a big star but has the same light touch, creating music rather than demanding our attention. Harpist Sivan Magen never puts a foot or a finger wrong, with a warmly expressive sound to go along with a musical touch which goes beyond banal descriptive words. There are classic recordings to look out for in this work, such as with Jean-Pierre Rampal, who delivers more French character from the notes as one might expect. This ECM recording, expansive and atmospheric, ticks all the boxes for me.

The programme concludes with a potentially tougher nut to crack in the form of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten, or Garden of Joys and Sorrows. Context once again proves important. This is a work which rounds off the literary connection with Takemitsu, this time in the shape of a poem by Francisco Tanzer, a Viennese poet who died in 2003. The title is however from a different source, that of the Moscow poet Iv Oganov. Gubaidulina’s music is every bit as expressive as that of Takemitsu, adding drama and higher passions to the elevated and enigmatic worlds which are the composer’s “concrete and aural perception of this garden”. The instruments are explored in a range from the surrealistically ethereal to the quasi-violent, talking too us even where the harp’s strings are made to clatter against each other or the viola is muttering sotto voce. I have to admit finding myself occasionally at odds with Gubaidulina’s idiom, but here her voice is perfectly matched to the instruments and the sound-world of this recording.

There may be no such thing as the ‘perfect’ disc, but if this one has flaws then I’m at a loss to point them out. Everyone should own a copy.

Dominy Clements