Place disparate things side by side and you're still likely to get the buzz of a vibration, whatever the chosen medium. Even so, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's decision to programme English 17th-century pieces with traditional Japanese music broadly contemporary with them was a bold one, a calculated risk that might easily have failed.
As it happened, the reward was extensive. Realisation of this came, paradoxically, midway through the dreamy counterpoint of a pair of In Nomines by Henry Purcell, whose impeccable ear heard sounds on the brink of classical tonality, yet outside the grip of its vast imperium.
No doubt the opening item, the suite from John Blow's Venus and Adonis had also helped listeners prepare for something rich and strange, Blow's quirky chord progression, save for some that proved genuinely telling in the Act Tune, being also from beyond the border of "correct" harmony.
With Kengyo Yoshizawa's Chidori, for voices, Japanese bamboo flute, or shakuhachi, and a pair of zithers, or kotos, another dimension opened to the imagination. For, just as in listening to the preceding consort pieces one's mind had reflected on the ambience of its time, of Restoration players, mellowed no doubt by good wine and a succulent meal, gathered round an open fire to perform by candlelight, so one could only speculate on how this haunting song might originally have been rendered. It was as domestic chamber music, like the Purcell, for certain, and a million miles in spirit from its onstage performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Yet this was no matter, in the sense that Monday's audience shared their sincere appreciation both here and for shakuhachi virtuoso Akikazu Nakamura's breath-taking account of the traditional Saji, its tissue of hypnotic swoops and swirls like some strange ayre from Prospero's island later evoked in Matthew Locke's suite from The Tempest. For modern composers, questions of East meets West, including the reconciliation of Japanese and European art by crossover, fusion or whatever, suggest different agendas borne of mutual knowledge of each other's musics. As copyist to the late Toru Takemitsu, Yui Kakinuma sat at the feet of a master of this art. His own Serenade on themes by Rentaro Taki, a popular, "westernised" composer from early last century, posed gentle dialogues between shakuhachi and solo violin, played with elegant precision by Ken Aiso.
In the London premiere of Michael Berkeley's Fierce Tears, in contrast, the passport was of shared sonorities: shakuhachi matched by icy violin glissandi and harmonics; koto's mandolin-like upper notes with pizzicatos, its fertile depths with sombre violas and basses, and all framed by the focal timbre of tutti knock-on-wood at crucial junctures. From an dynamic opening, of fiery energy rising through pithy figures, the music rose to a tranquil plane, instruments of East and West weaving poignant arabesques against pulsing strings recalling Bach. The dramatic ending, though sudden, arrived as straight and truly as a Zen archer's arrow to its target.Reuse content