Fu-Tong WONG (b.1948)
Xi Shi Fantasy
Lullaby [2:59]
Goodbye [4:43]
Rhapsody of Taiwan [8:38]
Prospects of Classical Poems [11:55]
Symphony - Condor Heroes (piano version) [20:28]
Xi Shi Fantasy [13:01]
Variations on 'A Tranquil Night' [7:52]
Chiao-Han Liao (piano)
rec. Ja Wei Audio & Visual Studio, Taipei, Taiwan, 9-11 January 2012. DDD

This is the fourth release on Cantonese composer Fu-Tong Wong's own label. Reviews of previous discs can be read here and 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 review. 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 recommend it.
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 episodes.
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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Chiao-Han Liao gives a respectful, polished reading of Wong's music.