May 9, 2008

The Five Sacred Trees - John Williams

Album: The Five Sacred Trees
Composers: Alan Hovhaness, Tobias Picker,
Toru Takemitsu,John Williams
Bassoonist:Judith LeClair
John Towner Williams
Year: 1997
Country:United States

For those moments of reverie, escape form the frenetic pace of the world in which we live and run, for those times when space form all that is needed this stunning album of music is a must. John Williams conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in his own work as well as works by Takemitsu, Hovhaness, and Picker that at first ground us to the memory of what truly counts in life and proceeds to lift the soul out of the state of pixelation and return it to the realm of nature, the place where all things relate.

Track Listing

(Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra)
1. I. Eo Mugna (6:54)
2. II. Tortan (3:53)
3. III. Eo Rossa (4:06)
4. IV. Craeb Uisig (2:53)
5. V. Dathi (8:01)

TOTU TAKEMITSU (1939-1996)
6. TREE LINE (9:52)

7. Andante con moto (5:12)
8. Double Fugue (Moderato maestoso, allegro vivo) (6:04)
9. Andante espressivo (5:20)


This disc contains great performances of some of the finest examples of sheer beauty in 20th century music that I've heard in some time - in a recording of exceptional quality. It's a wonderful opportunity for those who equate `20th century music' with `cacophony' and `discord' to experience how incredibly beautiful it can be. I discovered it while browsing - the Ansel Adams cover photography caught my eye, which then widened when I saw the bassoon reference prominently displayed (one of my favorite instruments).

The title piece, a concerto for bassoon and orchestra by John Williams, takes up roughly half the disc. The five-movement composition is an homage to the majestic and sacred qualities of trees. Williams says he wrote the concerto with the bassoon in mind, believing it to be `haunted' by `the spirit of the tree from which it is made'. Utilizing Celtic imagery and titles, each of the five movements evokes one of the legendary trees featured in the mythology of that ancient culture. The mood and tone of each section reflects the characteristics attributed to those trees: the sturdiness of the oak; Tortan, the mythical tree associated with witchcraft; the yew, symbol of destruction and creation; the ash, symbolic of strife; and Dathi, the tree-muse of poets and the last tree to fall in the mythological Celtic forest, appropriately placed at the end of the program. Williams translates his reverence for the forest into his music skillfully and with great feeling, and the performance by Judith LeClair and the LSO complement his vision perfectly, bringing the `personality' of each of the movements to life with sensitivity and passion.

Toru Takemitsu has long been one of my favourite modern composers - I discovered his work back in the 1970s, and I soon learned that I could count on the intelligence and quality his music. It has never failed to both challenge and reward me. Listening to the work included here, `Tree line', I'm amazed at the complexity and delicacy represented in this short (under ten minutes) example of his work - I've often compared his compositions to the work of traditional Japanese brush artists, whose works achieve so much with apparently so few strokes. The beauty of the haiku form of poetry also comes to mind. Takemitsu was a master at combining the ancient spirituality and traditions of Japan with modern classical music.

I haven't heard much by Alan Hovhaness - an oversight I plan to correct. The piece which represents this composer here, his Symphony no. 2 (`Mysterious mountain') is, I'm told by a friend who is well-schooled in classical music, one of his most widely appreciated. An American composer who pioneered the `fusion' of western and eastern ideas and traditions, his writing as showcased here is breathtakingly beautiful - I was especially taken with the layers-upon-layers sound of the strings. The notes here indicate that this piece was intended to pay homage to the great American landscape painters of the 19th century Hudson River School - and it evokes the images they captured on canvas beautifully.

The last piece on the CD is `Old and lost rivers' by Tobias Picker - another composer with whose work I am sadly unfamiliar. The shortest work on the album (under five minutes), it's a masterful exercise in tranquility and beauty. It certainly makes me want to seek out more compositions by Picker.. It's a wonderful package for multiple senses. (Larry L. Looney)


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