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QIGANG Chen (born 1951)
Iris dévoilée (2001)a
Reflet d’un temps disparu (1995/6)b
Wu Xing (1999)c
Wu Bixia, Ke Luwa (soprano)a; Ma Shuai (voice of Beijing opera)a; Wang Nan (er-hu)a; Li Jia (pi-pa)a; Chang Jing (zheng)a; Yo-Yo Ma (cello)b
Orchestre National de France/Muhai Tanga, Charles Dutoitb, Didier Benettic
Recorded: (live) Radio France, Auditorium Olivier Messiaen, February 2002 (Iris dévoilée); Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, April 1998 (Reflet) and Radio France, Studio 103, May 1999 (Wu Xing)
VIRGIN CLASSICS 7243 5 45549 2 6 [75:36]


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Qigang Chen, now in his early fifties, is an exact contemporary of Zhou Long and Chen Yi whose music features in a recent BIS disc (Oriental Landscapes – BIS CD-1222) that I reviewed recently. Like his colleagues, he was a victim of the so-called Cultural Revolution aiming – ironically enough – at getting rid of China’s extraordinarily rich cultural past. He too migrated to the West, landed in Paris and became Messiaen’s last pupil during the period 1984-1988. Messiaen’s influence may certainly be heard in the works recorded here although, like his colleagues, he too strives for reconciliation of his Eastern heritage and his Western musical education without either bluntly imitating Messiaen or falling into the trap of fake Orientalism. His music actually draws on both sides of his cultural background, and all the pieces here attempt a synthesis of East and West in a musical way. From this point of view, the most recent and most substantial work Iris dévoilée may be the most successful and, to a certain extent, consolidates Qigang’s stylistic journey. This large-scale score calls for three female soloists including a Beijing opera singer, three traditional Chinese instruments (actually the same as featured in Zhou Long’s Out of Tang Court recently reviewed) and large symphony orchestra. Its nine movements represent nine facets of what Frenchmen call l’éternel féminin. Interestingly enough, the Chinese text is sung or declaimed in traditional fashion by the Beijing opera singer whereas the ‘classical’ sopranos sing wordless vocalises. The piece unfolds slowly alternating tranquil, angry or whimsical women’s portraits. This predominantly slow, often dreamy score, however, has its more animated moments such as in Libertine (redolent of The Fire in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges), in Jealous and, of course, in the histrionics of Hysterical. The piece, however, ends with a long ecstatic movement of great beauty. The music, subtly scored and refined, often calls Messiaen to mind (especially the love music of his Turangalîla) but also has echoes from Ravel or Debussy. The traditional singer and instruments lend the music its highly personal tone. I find this a really beautiful piece though I suspect that some might find it ‘too pretty’ for its own good.

The almost Proustian title of Reflet d’un temps disparu fairly describes what the music is about. It is actually based on an old Chinese melody slowly explored and mused upon in the dialogue between cello and orchestra. This very attractive, mildly nostalgic piece is cast as a simple arch form slowly building-up towards a massive climax before retracing its way back into silence.

Wu Xing ("The Five Elements") is a short orchestral suite of clearly contrasting movements evoking the five elements which, according to Chinese tradition, constitute the universe. This is another fine work fully demonstrating Qigang’s remarkable orchestral flair.

As far as I can judge, these often beautiful works receive superb readings from all concerned and the live recorded sound is quite good indeed. Needless to say that Qigang’s music was new to me; but I for one loved its refinement and subtlety enormously. I do not know what his other works may sound like, but I would definitely want to hear more of it.

Hubert Culot

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