Saturday, 7 April 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, April 2012)

Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Tsung Yeh

What exactly is Nanyang music? That question was posed to composers around the world when the Singapore Chinese Orchestra organised its first International Composition Competition for Chinese orchestral music in 2006. This double-CD album highlighting six winning compositions goes some way in answering that. The Chinese diaspora to the “South Seas” (hence the description Nanyang) is an integral part of the cross-pollination between Chinese and indigenous musical cultures. The use of specific scales for typically Southeast Asian melodies and percussive rhythms, dressed in colours and textures of Chinese instruments define most of these compositions, whether they be in the form of a song and dance or the more ambitious symphonic poem.

The results are illuminating. Young local Wang Chenwei’s The Sisters’ Islands crafts a strong Indonesian feel based on ancient Temasekian legends, contrasted with a more international sound in Singapore’s resident Welshman Eric Watson’s Tapestries: Time Dances. Simon Kong from Sabah muses on three tropical fruits in Izpirazione II, using Borneo aboriginal rhythms to describe the tarap (related to the jackfruit) while his fellow Malaysian Yii Kah Hoe’s Buka Panggung is a rowdy evocation of wayang kulit. Veteran Chinese composer Law Wai Lun’s Admiral Of The Seven Seas is literally the musical Zhenghe (Cheng Ho), convincingly planting Chinese roots into Indo-Malayan soil. Young Hongkonger Tang Lok Yin’s Volcanicity, a restless portrayal of the Gunung Merapi eruption, completes the varied set. The SCO led by Tsung Yeh gives highly spirited and persuasive accounts, a massive boost in developing this niche but emerging genre.

Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Tang Muhai
BIS SACD-1843 / ****1/2

Music for the cello translates rather easily for the viola. Both stringed instruments produce that throaty, long-breathed quality that sounds perfect for those melodies that just linger on. Schubert’s Sonata in A minor (D.821) was originally written for the arpeggione, the instrument of antiquity that was once called a “bowed guitar”. However cellists have been happy to lay claim to the Arpeggione Sonata for ages, wallowing in its lyrical sunshine and Lieder-like qualities. Thanks to Dobrinka Tabakova’s arrangement for string orchestra, violists can now do the same.

Tchaikovsky’s only cello concerto, Variations On A Rococo Theme, is similarly amenable for this treatment. In his own adaptation, Russian violist Maxim Rysanov coaxes a luscious tone throughout, and has the agility to surmount the most athletic and tricky of the variations. The cello is all but forgotten here. The makeweight is 9 minutes of Max Bruch’s Romance in F major, the only original viola work of the album. From the German composer better known for his violin concertos, this is a very pleasant diversion. Despite the high quality of music-making, playing time of just 52 minutes these days seems unacceptably low.

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