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Memories Lost
Fazil SAY (b.1970)
Piano Concerto No 3, Op.11 (2001) ‘Silence of Anatolia’ [21.42]
Hsiao TYZEN (b.1938)
Farewell Étude, Op.55 [6.24]
Memories of Home, Op.49: Memory [2.53]
Yu JULIAN (b.1957)
Impromptu, Op.9 (1982) [3.21]
Cheng QIGANG (b.1951)
Instants d’un opera de Pékin (2004) [11.19]
Xang XIOAHAN (b.1980)
A Lost Diary (2007): A song in the childhood [4.22]
Wang XILIN (b.1937)
Piano Concerto, Op.56 (2010) [30.20]
Chen Sa (piano)
Taipei Chinese Orchestra/Chung Yiu-Kwong
rec. Zhongshan Hall, Taipei, Taiwan, November 2013
BIS SACD BIS-1974 [81.55]

This enterprising release contains two piano concertos framing a solo recital of modern Chinese music by the skilled and perceptive Chen Sa. The inclusion of the first of these concertos seems rather perplexing, however, since unlike the rest of the pieces on this disc it seems to have no Chinese connection whatsoever. Both concertos were written for, and given their first performances by, Western symphony orchestras, but are here arranged for ‘Chinese orchestra’ by Chen Mingchi and Simon Kong Su Leong respectively. The constitution of this orchestra combines some Western percussion including timpani, cellos and double basses with traditional Chinese wind instruments and strings including a substantial plucked-string section consisting of lutes, dulcimer and zither – although the illustration of the orchestra on the back of the booklet also discloses the presence of a decidedly Western-looking double-action harp.

In the concerto by the Turkish composer Fazil Say the presence of the Chinese instruments is hardly detectable, and the booklet notes state that the arranger had “endeavoured to retain Fazil Say’s precise style of orchestration, especially in order to preserve the serene character that pervades much of the work.” I have to observe that the serenity is not wholly unperturbed, since there are some quite violent eruptions during the first movement and a scherzo-like second movement with the unexplained and mysterious subtitle Obstinacy. The Turkish folk influence is palpable, and there are many moments of beauty. Some further explanation of the programme that evidently underlies the music might have helped the listener to appreciate the score to a greater extent.

The concerto by Wang Xilin was written, we are told in the booklet note by the conductor, as a conscious counterbalance to the Yellow River Concerto which had become a symbol of the Chinese Revolution. While that work was in many ways a tribute to the concertos of Rachmaninov — which accounts in large measure for its popularity in the West — Xilin’s work is similarly a tribute to Prokofiev. This relates not just to the piano concertos but also to his film music for Ivan the Terrible whom Xilin not unjustifiably seems to compare to Mao-Tse Tung. The work is dedicated to his teacher Lu Hongun, conductor of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, who was killed in the Cultural Revolution. Indeed the opening movement is full of conflict, which develops gradually from a Prokofiev-like toccata into a real scream of protest. After that one might expect the slow passacaglia which follows to convey a sense of relaxation but there remain internal tensions underlined by semi-military rhythms. There is little or no obvious Chinese element in this music but at the beginning of the finale it suddenly emerges with a long clarinet solo (here performed on a sheng). This leads via a percussion interlude into a fugue of progressive violence. The booklet note claims no programme for the music, but I am tempted here to view the concerto as a sort of Straussian Heldenleben where the composer here confronts his ‘critics’ in battle. This also would help to explain the quiet conclusion to the movement, a ‘retirement from the world’ indeed where the composer at last achieves a sense of peace and fulfilment. The rescoring for Chinese orchestra has been well done even though at the end the ear can detect resonances of the ‘muted strings’ to which the booklet refers. I thought I could hear Western trumpets and trombones at a few other points. Chen Sa performs excellently in the many passages of moto perpetuo and brings a real sense of delicacy to the end of the concerto. The work is unlikely to eclipse the Yellow River Concerto in popular esteem, but it deserves to be heard more frequently. It was first performed in November 2010, but this appears to be its first recording.

Between these two concertos Chen Sa performs a variety of modern Chinese pieces for piano. The Impromptu by Yu Julian is little more than its title describes, but the extract from A lost diary in Wang Xiohan is a remarkably imaginative transcription of a Chinese tune. The more substantial Instants d’un opera de Pékin by Chen Qigang was written for a commission from the Olivier Messiaen International Piano Competition. The shadow of Messiaen does indeed hang heavy on the work but the textures are imaginatively treated and achieve a real sense of hieratic grandeur as the piece progresses.

Best of all in this mini-recital are the two pieces by Hsiao Tyzen. Memory is a transcription of a vocal piece, adapted for the piano (as the booklet informs us) “owing to its great popularity”. The booklet also draws parallels with Chopin, which are not unjustified; and in the Farewell Étude, too, the influence of that composer can be felt. This is a really beautiful piece, describing a monk’s withdrawal from the world and his realisation many years later of the pointlessness of everything. There is a real sense of progress and nostalgia in equal measure, and a melody that remains in the head for days afterwards. This piece should really be taken up by other pianists. Not that this is to detract from the achievement of Chen Sa, who spins a marvellous atmosphere throughout and is beautifully recorded. The comprehensive booklet notes come in Chinese, English, French and German.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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