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An-lun HUANG (b. 1949)
Piano Trio No. 1, Op.30 [39:50]
Piano Trio No. 2, Op.83 [33:23]
Bin Huang (violin), Alexander Suleiman (cello), Yubo Zhou (piano)
rec. 2017, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster, Germany
MDG 903 2065-6 SACD [73:13]

The music of An-lun Huang, as evidenced by the two works on this disc, is a curious mix of tonal and emotional styles drawn from a range of mid-20th century composers – with Bartók and Hindemith (Huang’s father’s former teacher) ever-present, but both largely eclipsed by idioms drawn from the English pastoralists, with passages which seem to have been drawn straight from Vaughan Williams and Moeran. Only occasionally do glimpses of Huang’s Chinese origins pop their heads above the surface.

Distinctly English-type folk songs appear with surprising frequency. The principal theme of the final movement of the first Piano Trio flows so naturally, seems so archetypically English, and is so eminently singable, that it had me rooting around vainly to try and find its origins. It has a certain pentatonic flavour, but if this reveals, as the booklet notes suggest, Huang’s “homesickness for China”, this is almost wholly obscured by a clear fascination with the musical idioms of the West. Perhaps we can see Huang’s Chinese origins in the way this theme is treated, with glissando figures from the piano and joyful dancing figures from the violin, leading up to a grandiloquent statement of theme in unison from cello and violin amidst glittering cascades of notes from the piano. It seems improbable, and it is difficult to explain without sounding as if it is also something of a pastiche, but this juxtaposition of various European idioms with rare hints of chinoiserie works exceedingly well. And while the musical language is firmly rooted in the mid-20th century, there is enough individuality here to elevate it above merely outmoded imitation.

Though well acquainted with the large number of excellent composers emerging from China in the years since Cultural Revolution, I have to say Huang’s music had so far largely failed to make an impression on me. I have a couple of Marco Polo discs which feature various orchestral works, but even revisiting them now, they retain their instantly forgettable qualities. I read a quote on his website that “his accomplishments rivals Masters in the West” and “reflects the great country of China”. Just as well the originator of those words remains anonymous, for, on the strength of this disc, they are clearly desperately wide of the mark. Yet this comfortable, undemanding music, rarely revealing more than a hint of the composer’s Chinese origins or even of his present day Canadian domicile, is pleasant enough to warrant repeated listening.

It was not just a good idea to bring together two piano trios from either end of Huang’s composing career, but to have them performed by three players who are clearly thoroughly attuned to Huang’s style and can deliver it with authority, conviction and sincerity. They luxuriate happily in the big moments (such as the closings of both trios with their allusions to Chinese opera) but show delicacy and subtlety, especially in the delightfully effervescent, almost Mendelssohnian Scherzo from the 2nd Trio.

Despite a gap of over 30 years between these two works (they date from 1981 and 2014 respectively), during which time Huang studied in both the UK (Trinity College, London) and the USA (Pittsburgh and Yale) and settled permanently in Toronto, there is very little real stylistic difference to be observed between them. Certainly, the later work shows a greater mastery of the art of composition, uses the instruments more effectively, avoids the occasional moments evident in the earlier work where the music seems to be striving to be orchestral rather than easily confining itself to the chamber medium, and with a far greater sense of structural cohesion. One passage of real interest in the Second Trio is the extended cadenza for first violin and cello towards the end of the last movement, where Huang moves from something quasi-Messiaen, into the heart of Chinese string music and then on into the realms of The Lark Ascending before ending with a blatant bit of Chinese opera. It works well, not just because he is able to tread over such huge stylistic chasms with ease, but because these three players have no problems coping with such a wide-ranging collation of musical idioms.
I find both works delightful and absorbing, and provided you do not look for obvious Chinese characteristics or 21st century ideas in this music by a 21st century Chinese composer, you should certainly find this excellent recording and these stirring performances, enjoyable if hardly revelatory.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe

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