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Tyzen HSÍAO (b.1938)
1947 Overture (1986) [20.25]
Piano Concerto in C minor op.53 (1992) [34.16]
Symphony Formosa op.49 (1994) [14.30]
Cello Concerto in C op.52 (1991) [25.58]
An Angel from Formosa [4.30]
Violin Concerto in D op.50 (1991) [27.39]
Moscow State Chorus/Vladimir Kontarev (1947)
Anatoly Sheludiakov (piano)
Kiril Rodin (cello)
Alexander Trostiansky (violin)
Russian Federal Orchestra/Vakhtang Jordania
rec. Jan 1999 - July 2000, Radio Palace Hall, Moscow
ANGELOK1 CD-9912/13 [2CDs: 69.29+58.18]

This twin CD set was funded by the Tyzen Hsíao Music Foundation. It provides the international stage with what is, I think, its first real insight into Hsíao's music. As you can see he is an ambitious composer aspiring to the highest forms of music.

Hsíao was born in Kaoshing. After study in his native Taiwan he moved to Japan to develop his composition skills at the Musabino Music Academy from which he graduated in 1967. After some years back in Taiwan he moved to the USA in 1977. He now resides in Taiwan and has done so since 1995.

While the English-only liner notes claim the influence of traditional Taiwanese poetry, folk culture and devotional music, Hsíao's 'label' as the 'Taiwanese Rachmaninov' tells us more about this music.

We also need to keep in mind the history of the island of Taiwan which was a colony of Imperial Japan from 1895 to 1945 and then fell under Nationalist Chinese control with Chiang Kai-shek from 1949. Communist China expelled Chiang Kai-sheks forces from the mainland. A civil incident in Taiwan flared into insurrection and Chiang Kai-shek suppressed those stirrings of rebellion with brutality. The date of the 'spark' event was February 28th - hence the popular references to '228' (only openly spoken of since the end of martial law in 1988).

The above is the background to the 1947 Overture which, truth to tell, is sentimental, a little kitsch, drifting into a sub-Rachmaninovian lushness. To complete the OTT effect Hsíao adds a tempestuous piano part and a choral address that speaks of planting trees in our land, joining hands and praying for the loss of loved ones and for future peace. The style is of exalted nationalism dripping with patriotic fervour. It is a small step from here to other cantatas praising political leaders to the skies. Although ringing uncomfortably for non-Taiwanese ears this piece reflects tragic events and the high hopes of the people of Taiwan.

The Piano Concerto was premiered in Vancouver in 1994. It is a lushly romantic work with Rachmaninov's stormy and sometimes glittering emotionalism providing a reference point especially in the two outer movements. The adagio is like a hybrid of Vaughan Williams in The Lark Ascending and The Nutcracker. Anatoly Sheludiakov positively revels in its unabashed romanticism and melodic profusion. The balance between soloist and orchestra is much better here than in the sometimes strangely distant or congested 1947 overture.

After this indulgence the brief three movement Symphony comes as major gear-change. This time Hsíao embraces the language of modernity, discontinuity and rhythmic dissent. In the first movement a chug-thudding Rite of Spring rhythm provides an anchor for the listener struggling to find his bearings. The title Formosa is the name the Portuguese gave to Taiwan. It means 'beautiful and good things'. The second movement is a largo that, in ominous tones, touches on the sound of bells and the outline of wood flute melodies. There are also some Schoenbergian whisperings and scuttling. In the finale it is as if the seething commercial life of modern Taiwan bursts in. This is a violent contrast from the overture and piano concerto.

The Cello Concerto successfully integrates the tune Shushiuki sung by an Elgarian cello amid the Western classical context established by Dvořk and Tchaikovsky. This Concerto has its own virile life as can be heard in the allegro con spirito which has the vital impetus of the A'mai tribal dance and a folk song Yotzehueishian (The Homecoming). Once again there is sentimentality here but provided you can bear this the music works very well; in fact as well as anything on this disc. Cellists looking for a concerto out of the rut, grateful to play, direct speaking and not averse to sweetness would do well to try this out.

The Angel From Formosa is an idyllic picture of the Taiwanese countryside. It is completely Western in expression, gentle and consummately poetic.

The Violin Concerto starts with a very Delian allegro moderato in fact an atmosphere carried over from the Angel piece. The soloist's line smiles, surges and yearns and is most effectively and sympathetically played by Alexander Trostiansky. The sway and surge of this mood is well sustained across the almost 13 minutes of the first movement and into the sunset glow of the adagio dolente. After all this basking in sunshine the dashing moto perpetuo style finale takes a good long draught of inspiration from the finale of the Barber concerto. Had the concerto been called 'concerto idyllica' I doubt anyone would have blinked. Allowing for the completely anachronistic language it works extremely well as does the Cello Concerto.

With the exception of the Formosa symphony Hsao writes in a late nineteenth century style marked out by Rachmaninov, Delius, Tchaikovsky, Elgar and Dvořk. Music that is easy to like and in the case of the concertos for violin and cello works very well indeed.

Rob Barnett


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