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Debussy & Takemitsu: Works for strings

Scottish Ensemble Detailed performer information
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Recording details: April 2015
Caird Hall, Dundee, Scotland
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: June 2016
Total duration: 55 minutes 22 seconds

Fusing French and Japanese influences, this new recording from the string-orchestra-re-defining Scottish Ensemble features works by Takemitsu and Debussy, blending the intimate unity of a string quartet with the power of an ensemble far larger in a unique and beautiful soundworld.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'Thoughtfully programmed, beautifully recorded' (BBC Radio 3 CD Review)

'The reason for getting [this album] … is the opportunity it gives to appreciate some rarely heard music' (Classic FM)» More

'Nimbleness and rapt eloquence' (The Guardian)

'Expansive arrangements of Debussy and Takemitsu with a spirited, imaginative rendering' (iTunes Review, USA)

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Although Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op 10 (1893) is exactly contemporary with his Prélude à l’après midi d’un Faune, a landmark composition which Pierre Boulez has described as ‘the beginning of modern music’, it is much less advanced—less prophetic of the radical musical language which would establish Debussy as a leading modernist. It is likely that Debussy, having chosen to write a quartet, felt constrained by the quartet genre’s long tradition and the formal conventions associated with it, whereas the orchestral Prélude by its very nature invited a freer approach. Nevertheless the quartet is a strongly characterized work which has become firmly established in what was already an extraordinarily abundant repertoire. Not least among its original features is the wide palette of instrumental colours and string techniques employed, including tremolando and rapid alternations of pizzicato and arco. Jonathan Morton has made this arrangement of the quartet for string orchestra, using the additional double basses to support and emphazise the cello line where appropriate.

In 1890 César Franck completed his string quartet, a work which would prove very influential, especially in its use of cyclic form. Debussy begins his own quartet with a robust, decisive theme marked ‘Animé et très décidé’. This motto-theme will reappear in many different guises throughout the work, exemplifying the cyclic principle of thematic transformation which Franz Liszt—even before Franck—had developed so thoroughly and influentially in his thirteen symphonic poems, his Faust Symphony and his Piano Sonata. Although Debussy’s quartet is described as ‘in G minor’, much of the material, including the opening theme, is modal. A succession of lyrical themes provides poetic contrast to the bold opening, all held together by a remarkable feeling of continuity. The substantial development section begins with an altered version of the opening (now fortissimo) and continues with cumulative treatment of the final melody heard very late in the exposition. An intense fortissimo climax subsides but a subsequent crescendo leads to a shortened recapitulation in which Debussy completely transforms most of his original material with new accompaniment figures, fresh scoring and harmonizations.

In the strikingly original second movement (‘Assez vif et bien rhythmé’) Debussy radically transforms the rhythm of his original motto-theme into 6/8, with a rather sinister viola ostinato emerging as the dominant feature. Otherwise, the whole of the opening section is based on pizzicato writing. It is well documented that Debussy was deeply and lastingly influenced by the Javanese gamelan music which he heard at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. Clearly, these new sonorities and rhythms left their mark on his own music. The influence is most obvious in piano pieces such as ‘Pagodes’—the first of the three Estampes—but elements are more subtly absorbed into this quartet movement. (The ‘Scherzo’ of Glazunov’s String Quintet, composed the previous year, is another possible source of influence. Both composers give unusual prominence to pizzicato writing and incorporate a tripletduplet rhythmic feature.) Debussy’s middle section brings contrasting lyricism with another melodic transformation of the motto-theme. There are also two dramatic first violin interjections—distortions of the motto-theme. The pizzicato section returns in skeletal form, now without the viola ostinato, and rhythmically transformed into five beats in the bar. Thus Debussy’s general aversion to literal repetition is already obvious even in this early work.

Marked ‘Andantino, doucement expressif’, the sumptuously beautiful slow movement in the remote key of D flat major inhabits a completely different world, each instrument muted except in the central section. This is the only movement in which the motto-theme is not recalled. The middle section in E major begins with a new viola melody, and a further expressive melody is then introduced before being repeated three times, each time with new instrumentation. The shortened reprise of the first section ascends to the highest first violin register and the movement fades to a tranquil conclusion (‘becoming weaker’, then ‘as soft as possible’).

The finale begins with a slow introduction (‘Très modéré’) in which the first violin reference to the motto-theme is again greatly disguised. A held chord gives way to a gradually accelerating passage including a strong suggestion of the motto as it appeared in the second movement, and this leads to the main part of the movement, marked ‘Très mouvementé et avec passion’. Here an urgent theme predominates until a calmer passage brings an expressive first violin variant of the motto-theme. The impassioned mood returns and the scherzo version of the motto-theme initiates a thrilling coda marked ‘Très vif’.

Debussy’s Quartet was dedicated to the Ysaÿe Quartet—Eugene Ysaÿe, Mathieu Crickboom, Léon Van Hout and Joseph Jacob. They gave the premiere on 29 December 1893 at a concert of the Société Nationale de Musique at the Salle Pleyel in Paris.

Debussy and Ernest Chausson, his slightly senior composer-compatriot, were accustomed to exchanging perfectly frank opinions about their respective works. When Chausson told Debussy precisely what he did not like about his quartet, Debussy replied: ‘…for a few days I was very much grieved by what you said about my quartet…Well, I shall write another one, just for you, and I shall try to clothe it in more dignified forms.’ Debussy’s description on the title page—‘Premier Quatuor’—indicates that he seriously planned another, but sadly the proposed work never became a reality.

Tōru Takemitsu (1930–1996) was the first Japanese composer to achieve international status. Born in Tokyo, he was largely self-taught but possessed an instinctive feeling for instrumental colour and sensuous textures. Significant in this respect is his acknowledgement of Debussy as his ‘great mentor’, while other cited influences are Webern, Varèse, Messiaen and Schoenberg. The principles of John Cage also influenced Takemitsu to employ indeterminacy, allowing the performer a degree of personal choice. During a post-war illness, Takemitsu listened to broadcasts of Western music and when, at the age of sixteen, he began to compose, he took inspiration from those experiences. At the same time he turned away from traditional Japanese music because—as he explained many years later—it seemed infused with ‘bitter memories of war.’ However, he subsequently revisited his national heritage, even composing for traditional Japanese instruments in certain pieces. A few years after the war, he used electronic music technology and co-founded an experimental workshop for mixed media collaborations. From this well-established avant-garde position, however, Takemitsu gradually developed and refined his style while returning to a diatonic musical language. He described as another major influence the Japanese formal garden: ‘My music is like a garden and I am the gardener. Listening to my music can be compared with walking through a garden and experiencing the changes in light, pattern and texture.’ Takemitsu’s extensive composition list (several hundred items) includes dozens of chamber works for an extremely diverse range of combinations; nearly twenty piano pieces; more than fifty orchestral works; music for radio, television and theatre; and pieces for tape. Takemitsu also wrote books on aesthetics, film and music theory.

Takemitsu’s extensive output of film music—he wrote about one hundred film scores over a forty-year period—is among the least known aspects of his oeuvre, but, like the film music of Dmitri Shostakovich, it is very revealing of the composer’s boundless versatility and his constant receptiveness to influences of all kinds. Takemitsu’s enormous appetite for films was gratified by regular viewing of around two hundred and fifty each year. The sombre and poignant ‘Funeral music’ is a reworking of music from Black Rain, a 1989 Japanese film which should not be confused with an American film of the same name. Directed by Shohei Imamura and based on a novel by Masuji Ibuse, it deals with the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Among Debussy’s considerable output of piano music the two books of Préludes stand out as landmarks of the keyboard repertoire. The eighth piece from the first book (1910) is entitled ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ (‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’), although it should be remembered that Debussy placed his ‘titles’ merely in brackets, at the end of each prélude, to discourage literal interpretation by the listener. In one important sense ‘La fille aux cheveux de lin’ is unique among the twenty-four préludes. Most of the pieces are evocations of nature—footsteps in the snow, the wind in the plain, the sounds and perfumes of the evening air, dead leaves, etc. Others are pictures of fictitious, stylized or idealized characters—Puck, Mr Pickwick, the puppet General Lavine, the water nymph Ondine, etc. ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ is the one piece inspired by an ordinary person. Marked ‘Très calme et doucement expressif’, this is the most attractively lyrical and direct of the préludes. The title is that of a poem from Leconte de Lisle’s Poèmes Antiques: Chansons écossaises (1852), verses which Debussy had set as a song in 1880, though the two works are musically unrelated. In the poem a Scots girl sings in the early morning sunshine.

This string orchestra version (including two harps) was arranged in 2005 by Colin Matthews (b1946). Matthews has orchestrated all of Debussy’s Préludes from both books, even adding a postlude of his own.

Takemitsu’s ‘Music of training and rest’ is his reworking of music from the film José Torres (1959), a 25-minute documentary directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. The eponymous hero is the Puerto Rican boxer who lived from 1936 to 2009. Only once knocked out in his 11-year professional career, Torres was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997. The jazz influenced ‘Music of training and rest’ begins with arresting dissonances, before a pizzicato riff is established above which the violins unfold expansive phrases. Yearning passages afford brief relaxation. Together with ‘Funeral music’ from Black Rain and ‘Waltz’ from Face of Another, ‘Music of training and rest’ forms Three Film Scores (1994–5), an admirably contrasting group of pieces to enhance the string orchestra repertoire.

Debussy composed his suite Children’s Corner in 1908 for his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Chouchou. The six pieces are impressions of a little girl’s world—dolls, toys and gentle fantasy. Debussy greatly admired Modest Mussorgsky’s song cycle The Nursery, commenting ‘never has such refined sensibility been expressed with such simple means’. Mussorgsky’s vividly realistic songs may well have inspired him to compose his own, albeit more sophisticated Children’s Corner. This is not music for children to play, as Robert Schumann’s Album für die Jugend clearly is. These pieces are childhood scenes as viewed by an adult observer, like Schumann’s Kinderszenen. The English titles of the movements may well be a gesture towards the nationality of Chouchou’s governess, from whom the child picked up little anglicised expressions and manners. ‘Jimbo’s Lullaby’, the second piece, illustrates Chouchou’s toy elephant, here being told a bedtime story. (Eccentrically, Debussy insisted on ‘Jimbo’ rather than Jumbo.) The beginning, marked ‘soft and a little clumsy’, introduces in the lowest register the main pentatonic melody. At bar 11 Debussy quotes from the nursery lullaby ‘Do, do, l’enfant do’, and this is combined with some left-hand whole-tone scale in octave quavers in the more animated middle section. This arrangement for strings is by James Manson, composer, arranger and principal double bass of the Northern Chamber Orchestra since 1989.

Takemitsu composed Nostalghia in 1987 ‘In Memory of Andrei Tarkovsky’. Born in the Yuryevetsky district of Ivanovo Oblast, Russia, Tarkovsky (1932–86) is now regarded as one of the greatest of all film directors. Produced in Italy, Nostalghia (1982–3) was Tarkovsky’s penultimate film and the first film which he directed outside Russia. The word ‘nostalghia’ is an Italian translation of a Russian word meaning homesickness, rather than the more general meaning of the word nostalgia. Takemitsu’s piece has no direct connection with the film, but is rather an elegy for Tarkovsky’s art in general, capturing the poetry and thoughtfulness of his work. Above a calm background of shifting chords the solo violin plays a series of ascending phrases, usually dissolving into harmonics. Commissioned by the Scottish Post Office, the work was premiered by Yehudi Menuhin and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Sir Peter Maxwell Davies at the 1987 Edinburgh Festival.

Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2016

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