A chance path leads from my recent articles about Philippa Schuyler to the Vietnamese composer Ton-That Tiêt. In her biography Kathryn Talalay tells how Philippa entered into a relationship with an American intelligence officer called Jim Leiter during her first visit to Vietnam in 1966. The biographer describes one of their meetings as follows:
'Philippa saw quite a bit of Jim. One evening as they were sitting in the jeep gazing at Hué's Perfume River, he told her she was the first good thing that had happened to him since he had come to Vietnam.'The Perfume River provided the inspiration for Et la rivière chante l'éternité (And the river sings for ever) written in 1998 for string trio by Ton-That Tiêt. Born in Hué in 1933, Ton-That Tiêt, who is seen above, moved to Paris in 1958 and studied at the Conservatoire where his reachers included Jean Rivier, André Jolivet and Andrée Vaurabourg; the latter is better known as Mrs Arthur Honegger and among her other pupils was Pierre Boulez.
Philippa Schuyler and Ton-That Tiêt may be linked by the Perfumed River at Hué, but their music could not be more different. Although Philippa had what John McLaughlin Williams describes as "a healthy curiosity about the modern music of her time" she did not stray from her tonal roots. By contrast Ton-That Tiêt's journey took him beyond serialism to a unique style that combines Eastern and Western elements. His output includes electro-acoustic compositions among which is a work for for flute and magnetic tape commissioned by IRCAM.
Divination systems have attracted many contemporary composers. Philippa Schuyler used tarot cards to choose her recital programmes and Ton-That Tiêt shares with John Cage a fascination with the I Ching. But, unlike Cage, Ton-That Tiêt does not use chance as a composition process, but rather as a philosophical guide. Despite being an agnostic, Ton-That Tiêt's music is influenced by mystical traditions including Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, with the latter inspiring his Les sourires de Bouddha (Smiles of the Buddha) which sets verses by the 8th century Chinese poet Wang Wei for chamber choir.
Both Les sourires de Bouddha and Et la rivière chante l'éternité are available on CD from the enterprising and independent French Editions Hortus label. Les sourires de Bouddha , for which a reviewer's listening notes mention hints of Ligeti, Penderecki, and Stimmung, comes on a 19 minute CD single in an exemplary performance by the Toulouse based chamber choir Les Élements conducted by Joël Suhubiette. Et la rivière chante l'éternité is post-Jolivet in style and comes on a full length CD coupled with two other works by Ton-That Tiêt. The performances are by the Ensemble Les Temps Modernes who champion a number of contemporary composers including Tristan Murail, and the sound captured in the Salle Varèse in Lyon by the Editions Hortus production team is both appropriate and excellent.
A combination of artistic excellence and high production standards typify Editions Hortus's output, and never more so in their disc of György Kurtág's Játékok (Games) and Átiratok Machaut-tól J. S. Bach (Bach transcriptions). This new release was made with the co-operation of the composer and his wife Márta, but comes up againt the formidable opposition of the husband and wife's own 1997 ECM recording of extracts from the same work.
Duplication should not however deter those with the ECM disc in their collection. Jean-Sébastien Dureau and Vincent Planès give a refreshingly extrovert interpretation which supplements but does not replace the composer's own definitive account and, sensibly, the new disc offers a different selection from the two cycles. But, and probably most importantly, Edition Hortus provide considerably better sound. ECM recorded György and Márta Kurtág in the dry acoustic of the Mozart-Saal in the Konzerthaus, Vienna and Manfred Eicher and his team used their standard digital tools to produce the signature ECM sound. By contrast Editions Hortus chose the warm acoustic of l'église Saint German de Talloires in the Haute-Savoie region of France and producer Valérie Aimard provides the natural depth and spaciousness that is missing on the ECM disc.
My intitial impression on learning about this new release was 'do we need another Játékok?' But the number of times I have listened to Jean-Sébastien Dureau and Vincent Planès' interpretation unequivocally answers that question. More on André Jolivet here, and Kurtág's ghosts lurk here.
* English interview with Ton-That Tiêt here. French resources include Jean-Sébastien Dureau and Vincent Planès' excellent website. Featured CDs can be bought from the English language Editions Hortus online shop. Editions Hortus discs can also be bought from the MusicWeb International website.
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