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Bright SHENG (born 1955)
China Dreams (1992/5)
Two Poems from the Sung Dynasty (1985)a
Nanking! Nanking! (2000)b
Juliana Gondek (soprano)a; Zhang Qiang (pi-pa)b; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra; Samuel Wong
Recorded: City Hall, Hong Kong, February 2002
NAXOS 8.555866 [65:44]


As with some of his contemporaries, all in their late forties (Zhou Long, Chen Yi, Qigang Chen, to name but a few), Bright Sheng attempts a reconciliation of Eastern and Western musical traditions while avoiding ready-made formulae. Their approach is on the whole quite similar to Bartók’s or Kodaly’s but Sheng seems closer to Bartók than to Kodaly. He has sometimes been nicknamed "the Chinese Bartók", which has more than a grain of truth. This is particularly evident in the earliest work recorded here, Two Poems from the Sung Dynasty for soprano and orchestra. He withdrew a number of early works from that period, which he regarded as immature. Though he obviously had some doubts about this song cycle, he eventually decided to acknowledge it because "there is something in it which still speaks [to me] in a special way". Both poems are love songs which he sets in a rather expressionistic way that perfectly suits the poems’ words and their political and historical background. At the time these poems were written, China was invaded by the Mongolians and the poet’s husband died during the war. This beautiful short song cycle may be somewhat more ‘modern’ (Bartók may have been lurking around the corner) than the other works recorded here; but I believe that this is by far the finest and the most gripping piece in this selection.

China Dreams assembles four pieces composed between 1992 and 1995 in response to various commissions, though the composer admits that, from the start, they were undoubtedly meant to form a single work. The first two movements (Prelude and Fanfare) are fairly short whereas the third (The Stream Flows) and the fourth (The Three Gorges of the Long River) are rather more complex and more developed. All four movements borrow Chinese folk material, again much in the same way as Bartók - no mere rhapsodising on folk tunes. The piece opens with a beautifully atmospheric Prelude followed by a brilliant Fanfare, both based on tunes from various parts of China. The third movement, the real gem in this fine work, is a superb piece of string writing developing a tune from the Yunnan Province. The final movement uses other folk material while developing music heard in the Prelude, thus bringing some unity to what may at first glance have seemed rather disparate. This is well-crafted, superbly scored and highly communicative music. Incidentally, this is the second recording of this piece. Another is available on BIS CD-1122 which I have not heard but which was reviewed here some time ago.

Nanking! Nanking! (subtitled A Threnody for Orchestra and Pipa) is altogether more serious and ambitious. Completed in 2000 and dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach who conducted the premiere in January 2000, the piece is a heartfelt and powerful threnody in memory of the victims of the Nanjing massacres in 1937. Japanese invaders were then responsible for one of the most brutal massacres in military history, destroying the ancient capital city and killing, raping and torturing numberless victims - more than 300,000 Chinese civilians perished during these massacres. The music is much more violent than in any of the other pieces. It is also more overtly expressionistic with very little actual Chinese material, were it not for the lonely pi-pa desperately battling against large and often loud orchestral forces. An impressive achievement, even if a bit too long for its material. The composer’s sincerity and honesty as well as his deeply human concerns are never in doubt.

Over the last few months I have been reviewing quite a number of recordings of music by young Chinese composers which I found most impressive and compelling. This is one of the many delights of CD reviewing. Until now, Bright Sheng was just a name to me. Now, this superbly produced release has whetted my appetite for more of his music. At bargain price, this is a most desirable release which I warmly recommend to those who may have delayed their investigation of Sheng’s music so far. Then, I am sure, you will also want to have the BIS disc. I have already started looking for it.

Hubert Culot



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