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TAN Dun (b. 1957)
Violin Concerto “Rhapsody and Fantasia” [32:50]
Violin Concerto “Fire Ritual” [29:00]
Eldbjørg Hemsing (violin), Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Tan Dun
rec. Oslo Concert Hall, Norway, 2018
BIS BIS-2406 [62:37]

The first of Tan Dun’s two violin concertos recorded on this disc (there is a third, earlier one, not recorded here) bursts into life with a vivacious, jazzy, no-nonsense, in-your-face momentum in which, under the composer’s effervescent direction, the Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing and the Oslo Philharmonic – especially its percussion section – throw themselves into the action with utter conviction. And all of it is captured in the kind of vivid sound we have come to expect from Bis’s SACD engineering. Cast in two sections – each of which is broken up into three distinct tracks on the disc – the Concerto goes under the title “Rhapsody and Fantasia”. If that is a title which might imply, at least to begin with, something ruminative, then the title is misleading. For the first section (entitled “Rock the Violin in Rhapsody”) is heavy on the rock and only rarely ventures into the realms of what we might call the rhapsodic. When it does do that, there is a sumptuous passage for strings, showing Tan’s more romantic side, and a reflective episode for violin, revealing Hemsing’s more lyrical vein.

The Concerto’s origins stretch back to 2009, but the work was only published in its current state in 2018 and given its first performance (by the same forces recorded here) in Oslo last September. While the first movement may be primarily a vivid exposition of collective and individual virtuosity, the second movement (titled “A Dream out of Peking Opera”) has a far more obvious programmatic element. Here Hemsing and her violin take on the role of the Peking Opera singer, with some high, fluting tessitura and dramatic gestures often involving rapid reiterations of small musical cells. Some bending of pitches played pizzicato creates an impression of the kind of traditional instruments which accompany Peking Opera, while the orchestra’s role is principally to add pin-pricks of sound and occasional countermelodies. The whole thing is a remarkably successful recreation for archetypically western instruments of the soundworld of Peking Opera and, once again, we are reminded of Tan’s powerfully visual imagery in his music. It might be silyl to point out that these Norwegian musicians manage to sound authentically Chinese – but they do!

The second of the violin concertos on this disc is entitled “Fire Ritual”, and was also premiered by these musicians in Oslo in September 2018. It is a very different work, in which the violin seems to set off a frantic march from the orchestra culminating in – a typical Tan Dun trick this – a communal shout from the whole orchestra. For much of the work, Hemsing is musing over a single pitch D (symbolically identified as “Re” in solfège and giving rise to the concepts, as Tan points out in his cursory booklet note, “REnew, REstart, REsurrect”), but beyond playing it straight, she goes on to bend it to its very limits. Chinese elements are strong in the crashing gongs and drums as well as in the guttural vocalisations of the musicians, but mostly in the extraordinary twists and turns of the soloist’s melodic musings which, as the work progresses through its five unbroken sections, become ever more wide-ranging. The title hints at the ritualistic ideas behind the work, but much of the symbolism is visual rather than aural. We read that “an ensemble of nine wind players is placed in the audience while the rest of the orchestra sits on stage, the two engaging in a series of questions and answers. The Shaman of this ritual is the conductor, simultaneously directing the on-stage and off-stage musicians. However, the bridge between the two orchestras is the Prophet, represented by the solo violinist who emerges from the audience at the beginning of the piece and slowly makes her way on stage”.

We might be missing that visual element, but as a recording and as a performance this is remarkably vivid stuff, and perhaps allows us to concentrate rather more on the Concerto’s other subtitle, “A music ritual for the Victims of War”.

Marc Rochester

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