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Chen GANG (b.1935) and He ZHANHAO (b.1933)
The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto (1959)
Peter BREINER (b.1957)

Songs and Dances from the Silk Road: A Beloved Rose (Kazakh Folk-Song); The Half-Moon Climbs (Uygur Folk-Song); Spinning (Gansu Folk-Song); All at Work (Great North-West Folk-Song); Sa Hi Long Ba (Uygur Fol-Song); Lan Hua Hua (Shanxi Folk-Song); Lift Your Veil (Uygur Folk-Song); Tulufan (Xinjiang Folk-Song)
Takako Nishizaki (violin)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/James Judd
Rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 8th-10th April 2003
NAXOS 6.110082 SACD [63:23]


This is not Takako Nishizaki’s first recording of The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto because she made one for Marco Polo over a decade ago. She is however the obvious choice for Naxos and demonstrates that here. The 1959 Concerto, which uses traditional Chinese melodies and themes, is written as a kind of synthesis, with the solo instrument adhering more to the native er-hu, a two stringed Chinese fiddle, and the Western orchestra luxuriating in Chen Gang and He Zhanhao’s well nigh irresistible orchestration. I have a canny feeling that if you came to this work to scoff at its perceived simplicity you will leave charmed and sometimes moved by its evocative magic. The story on which the concerto is modelled is a narrative concerning, well, yes, a boy, a girl, and love. Better I think to ignore the long if touching synopsis and listen to it as if it were Delius.

It’s not just the soloist who has to contend with some demanding writing; the solo flute has a strong role and the NZSO’s principal deserves a bow (but doesn’t get one, this being routine alas for symphonic players). To English ears the fluttering violin line reminds one of none other than VW’s blessed lark – this is no Chaussonesque hothouse; this is field and meadow and a panoply of graceful, deft scoring. There’s a lot in the notes about the work but nothing about the still living composers who were born in the 1930s. Who influenced them in those dangerous days, I wonder, and what could they hear and learn from? They write well for woodwind where the warmth and poetry are splendid and the rich recording gratifies the ear – nothing is unnaturally spotlit. Euro-Chinese Fusion before its time? Kitsch? No, certainly not. This is a heartfelt, melodious and delightful work.

Coupled with it we have Slovak composer Peter Breiner’s Songs and Dances from the Silk Road. He was a pupil of Alexander Moyzes in Bratislava but now lives in Canada. If the Silk Road conjures up Yo Yo Ma and a lot of ethnic baggage you should know that these nine pieces are all based on original Chinese melodies, written as a suite for solo violin and orchestra. Breiner conjures warm and feather fingered sonorities – tam tams, and flutes, springing ostinati for No.3 (complete with its "Chinese portamento" for the soloist) or else Western percussion for the rushing figures of All At Work (No.4). There’s even Arnoldian horn writing in the Uygur Folk-Song with daintily naughty violin and some Spanish rhythms in the final movement, Tulufan. Cross-pollination is alive and well.

My review copy was a SACD, which I played on an ordinary set up. It was warm and defined. As I’ve suggested this is a winning disc, with the NZSO on laureate form –one-time conductor Anderson Tyrer would have been proud of them - and soloist and conductor work splendidly together. Put away your Boulez and step into the sunshine for an hour.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Gwyn Parry Jones



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