DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Takemitsu, From me flows what you call time; Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5

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Sometimes, I would like to write a review that contains just two words: “Buy this!”

Occasionally, I get an opportunity to hear music, or a performance, or to see a film that is so good that I have trouble finding the best words to share my enthusiasm. This is one of those cases.

Conductor Yutaka Sado’s first performance with the Berlin Philharmoniker was a concert to raise funds for relief efforts following the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. The program that Sado chose was unique: From me flows what you call time, by Toru Takemitsu, is rarely performed, and is difficult work to play, calling for highly skilled percussionists. Following this was Shostakovitch’s 5th symphony.

My interest in this disc stems from a long love of Takemitsu’s music. From me flows what you call time was commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 1990 for its centenary celebrations. Featuring five percussionists and orchestra, it could be termed a concerto for percussion and orchestra. (Takemitsu wrote no works called “concerto” or “symphony”.) It begins with a haunting, Japanese-style melody on solo flute (played by Emmanuel Pahud, who plays with the Berlin Philharmoniker.) Then the five percussionists enter the hall through five different doors, and walk slowly to the stage playing timbals. Each is wearing a different coloured shirt: blue, red, yellow, green and white. These colours are those found in the Tibetan flag, and symbolize water, fire, earth, wind and sky. There are also long ribbons from either side of the stage to hanging bells suspended from the roof of the hall; each side has a set of five ribbons in the same colors.

When the percussionists get to the stage, the work truly begins, with waves of sound from the orchestra in Takemitsu’s signature style, interspersed with playing by the percussionists. For more than thirty minutes, this back and forth goes on, with the percussion instruments taking longer parts, and using more varied instruments. Everything is there: talking drums, singing bowls, hanging bells and dozens of other percussion instruments. There are several sections where the percussionists improvise around a loosely grouped series of notes.

And then it ends.

As I said, finding the words to describe this is difficult, but if I had to choose one for this work, it would be: riveting. For more than a half hour, I found myself absorbed in the complex, variegated sound world that Takemitsu had created. But it was more than the sound; seeing this work being performed, seeing the vast range of instruments, the colours, and the expressions on the faces of the musicians, who were clearly enjoying this work, was very moving. At the end, the huge smile on Yutaka Sado’s face, and the rapturous applause, suggested that everyone had shared in this unique moment.

After an intermission came Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. I find myself unqualified to discuss this work, which I do not know very well, but I had goose bumps as the work came to an end. The sheer energy and passion of the orchestra was astounding. Seeing Yutaka Sado drenched in sweat, yet occasionally breaking out in a childish smile was touching.

Everything on this disc is as good as it gets. The music, notably the rarely performed, and rarely recorded work by Takemitsu. Excellent musicians, and a conductor who gave all his energy in this concert. Excellent camerawork, lighting, direction and video quality. And perhaps the finest sound I’ve head on a Blu-Ray disc; the recording of both of these works has nearly perfect balance and detail.

After I finished watching this disc, I immediately went back to the beginning to watch the Takemitsu again. I hope you will too.

If you want to discover this amazing Takemitsu work, Amazon has the MP3 version of the only recording of it on disc for $2.99.