Classical: The past brought to life




PART OF the South Bank's current festival devoted to the music of Toru Takemitsu, this concert by the leading exponents of Japan's ancient gagaku music presented a fascinating opportunity to contrast timeless traditional pieces with a major work composed by Takemitsu in the 1970s.

It is unclear how close the sound of gagaku - which dates back as much as 1,000 years - is now to the music of centuries ago. Still, it has an unmistakable air about it of opening a window into some lost, archaic world.

From the moment that the players, dressed in their beautiful medieval robes, processed slowly and silently on to the stage, there was an inescapable spiritual quality about the proceedings. The performers remained motionless and impassive when not playing, and every stroke and instrumental gesture had a formalised, hieratic quality about it.

An opening item, Hyojo no Netori - a sort of ritualised tuning up - left the audience mystified, but as more substantial pieces followed, one began to get a sense of the way this music worked. Long, throbbing melodic lines are played by ryuteki flutes and hichiriki bamboo oboes against a constant background shimmer of sho mouth organs, while the rippling arpeggios and chords of the biwi lutes and koto zithers are underpinned by a slow rhythmic pulse, marked by a tiny gong and two sorts of drums.

The celebrated Etenraku was followed by Bairo, a piece with Indian origins that are reflected in its rather more varied rhythms. Far and away the most spectacular number was the Bugaku dance, Ryo-o, in which Sukeyasu Shiba, founder and artistic director of Reigakusha, gave an intricate, highly stylised and apparently masterful performance clad in the amazingly ornate, Tibetan-looking costume and fearsome dragon mask characteristic of this genre. Awesome, otherworldly and with a distinct suggestion of magical, almost shamanistic ritual about it.

The second half of the concert was occupied by Takemitsu's Shuteiga (In an Autumn Garden). The spirit of the formal Japanese garden pervades through much of the composer's work, and in this case a very large gagaku ensemble was laid out in four large silk robes, rather like a series of exotic blooms.

Quite what Takemitsu's reinterpretation of the tradition must sound like to aficionados is difficult to guess, but what he seems to have done is to deconstruct the elements of gagaku. The result is like a series of gestures, the meaning of which remains largely hidden. The harmonic and polyphonic effects were at times surprisingly ugly, but overall this music had the beautiful but elusive quality that is characteristic of a composer who inhabited the worlds of East and West simultaneously.