Thursday, 4 September 2014

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, September 2014)

Wild Grass
Beijing New Music Ensemble
Naxos 8.570604 / *****

Here is an hour of chamber music by two of the world’s greatest living Chinese composers, Zhou Long and Chen Yi (both born in 1953), who happen to be husband and wife. While contemporary musical techniques are employed, the essence of being Chinese strongly permeates their music. The best known work here is Chen’s Romance Of Hsiao And Ch’in, where the violin and piano relive the combo of xiao (vertical flute) and guqin, with the distinct voice of ancient musical theatre. The revolutionary Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881-1936) figures prominently in this collection. Chen’s Monologue for solo clarinet is a 5-minute long meditation on the fate of Ah Q, Lu’s most famous literary anti-hero. Was he executed, or was it just our vivid imagination?

Zhou’s Wild Grass just includes the introduction to Lu’s collection of prose poetry Yecao (1924-26), with Zhou as the reader-narrator accompanied by solo clarinet. Zhou gets more air time with his Su (Tracing Back) for flute and guqin, a work that achieved cult status in China even before the advent of the internet. His Pianogongs for piano and opera gongs may be heard as the prototype of his Postures for piano and orchestra, recently premiered by the SSO. The intoxicating world of drumming dominates in Taiping Drum and Taigu Rhythm, the latter a vigorous work for clarinet, violin, cello and percussion that unites the dagu and taiko of Chinese and Japanese cultures. These performances by the Beijing New Music Ensemble, formed by both locals and expats, are unlikely to be surpassed.

GLAZUNOV Symphonies & Concertos
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Russian National Orchestra
Warner Classics 2564 66467-4 (8 CDs) 

Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936) was arguably the greatest Russian composer of symphonies between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. That is scant consolation as his eight and a half symphonies (the ninth was incomplete) are hardly ever heard in concert. He was a superb craftsman whose symphonies are a joy to behold especially in performances as good as these. The early symphonies from the early 1880s contain strong Russian folk influences, and are reminiscent of Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov. The best are Nos.4, 5 and 6 where he finds his own voice, the same muse that distinguished his most popular music – the Violin Concerto, ballets The Seasons and Raymonda, also included in this budget-priced box-set.

By the time of his sprawling Eighth Symphony (1906), some 40 minutes long, he had withdrawn into the world of pedagogy (Shostakovich became his most famous student). This masterpiece has Wagnerian overtones and looks forward to the worlds of Elgar and early Stravinsky. All his concertos – for violin (with Rachel Barton Pine), piano (Alexander Romanovsky), cello (Wen Sinn Yang) and saxophone (Marc Chisson) – all highly engaging works also find a place here. The magisterial Uruguay-born conductor Jose Serebrier makes the best cases possible of each of these lesser-known works. The absence of programme notes (even the downloadable file from Warner Classics is non-functional) is a sore point, regrettable penny-pinching behaviour from a major label.

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