This is the fourth release on Cantonese composer Fu-Tong Wong's own label.
Reviews of previous discs can be read here
The latter of the two, issued last year, featured the chamber
version (for violin and piano) of Wong's Xi Shi Fantasy, the
work that gives this latest release its title. An orchestral
concerto version of the Fantasy appeared on a much earlier release
on the Taiwanese label Wind Records, for details of which, see
That disc also featured the orchestral version of another work
on the present CD, the Rhapsody of Taiwan. All of which should
prepare the reader for the fact that several of these latest
works are actually Wong's own arrangements for piano of earlier
pieces for various forces. In all, there is less than half an
hour's worth of strictly new material, and buyers of previous
CDs may consequently consider this one less than compelling.
On the other hand, all these items work very well on the piano.
Wong has an unerring talent for combining beautiful Chinese
and Taiwanese melodies, rhythms and inspirations with Western
techniques, harmonies and forms into imaginative, heart-felt
works of wide general appeal. As an introduction to Wong's music,
young Taiwanese pianist Chiao-Han Liao's recital has much to
Initially self-taught, Wong emigrated from China to New York
in the 1970s to help in his brother's noodle business in Chinatown,
but was able to take a university degree in music from 1975.
Since then he has published books on music theory and violin
practice, taught and studied further, and written a fair amount
of music, although even as late as 1990 he was still working
in his brother's concern. Wong currently lives in Taiwan, with
plans to retire - perhaps this will be his last CD, a final
step towards realising, in his daughter's words, "his dream
of uniting the best of classical Western and Eastern music."
In Rhapsody of Taiwan, Wong expresses his country's "life force
[and] fertile beauty" with lilting runs of melody punctuated
with heroic sweeps and the odd jig-like episode. The Xi Shi
Fantasy is based on Wong's only opera, Xi Shi. Its four sections
recount the love woes of the eponymous heroine, one of the apocryphal
Four Beauties of Ancient China whose loveliness had a tendency
to bring ruin upon kingdoms. Wong considers this piece, which
was premiered in its original orchestral version in 1993 at
the famous Musikverein in Vienna, one of his signature works,
and in it he has attempted to "embody the qualities of Bach's
music and Chinese opera" - a curious notion, perhaps, but one
in keeping with Wong's belief that Bach is "the founder of all
compositions", as he writes in his 2004 book Theory on Music.
Aptly, this virtuosic work has plenty of lyrical melodrama,
but also exotic colour, pastoral flamboyance and of course dance
What Wong here gives the rather cartoonish title 'Symphony Condor
Heroes' he has called elsewhere his 'Hero with Great Eagle'
Symphony. Confusion stems from the fact that the original orchestral
work is based on a chivalric martial arts novel called 'The
Return of the Condor Heroes', by Chinese author Louis Cha (b.1924),
who writes under the pseudonym of Jin Yong, and who is reportedly
the best-selling living Chinese novelist. The Symphony took
Wong an amazing 28 years to complete; this piano reduction he
calls a 'simplified version', although there are eight sections
as before. Each movement has a distinctive character, both formally
and programmatically, yet there is a pervasive mood of optimism
throughout the work, with the exception, obviously, of 'Losing
One's Soul in Sadness'. The suite reduction preserves the Western,
at times almost neo-Classical feel of the Symphony proper, hinting
at an Occidental composer employing ethnic colour. The
piano does strip away much of the filmic veneer of the original
score - Jin Yong's story has been adapted on no less than ten
occasions for both big and small screen in the Far East - but
preserves the flow of seamlessly incorporated melodic ideas,
narrative interest and timbral imagination.
Perhaps the most original and poetically beguiling work on the
whole CD is Prospects of Classical Poems, four settings without
voice of traditional Chinese poems, 'Papaya', 'Golden-threaded
Dress', 'The Sad Zither' and 'Vengeful Flame'. The texts in
translation are helpfully provided in the booklet. The short
Lullaby sweetly caresses the listener's brow, Goodbye moves
from a soft farewell to a heroic departure with pomp and ceremony,
and back again. In the fragrant Variations on 'A Tranquil Night'
Wong makes it absolutely clear that, musically speaking, his
heart lies in the 19th century and before.
Chiao-Han Liao gives a respectful, polished reading of Wong's
music, and makes a strong case for Prospects of Classical Poems
in particular to be heard frequently beyond Asia. Liao's piano
is not the most delicate of instruments, it must be said, and
can sound a trifle twangy and knocking in the loudest passages,
but generally sound quality is good. The booklet, sprinkled
with attractive calligraphy, provides notes by Wong and Liao
in Chinese and pretty good English, a short biography of them
both, and then a work-by-work summary of the music by Wong.
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