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ZHOU LONG(b. 1953)

Poems from Tang (1995)a
The Rhyme of Taigu (2003)
Da Qu (1990/1)b
The Future of Fire (2001, rev. 2003)c
Shanghai Quarteta; Jonathan Fox (percussion)b; Philharmonic Chamber Choirc
Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui
Recorded: Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore, August 2003
BIS CD-1322 [69:52]


Some of you may remember that Zhou Long was one of the finalists of the 1998 Masterprize Competition. His Two Poems from Tang then performed by Daniel Harding and here committed to disc are in fact the third and fourth movements of Poems from Tang for string quartet and orchestra. The culture of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) obviously means much to Zhou who has composed a number of pieces either setting poems from that period or inspired by that culture, such as From Tang Court (2000) for Chinese instruments and orchestra, recently recorded by the same forces on BIS CD-1222 Oriental Landscapes, reviewed here some time ago. This substantial score, inspired by poems dating from the Tang Dynasty, evokes the atmosphere, moods and images suggested by the poems. These are printed in the insert notes (a very good idea, I say). They are not overtly programmatic or picturesque. Zhou works marvels, and his music is by turns colourful, meditative, mysterious, rhythmically alert and appropriately inebriated (in the last movement Song of the Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets). He approaches his task with remarkable subtlety aided by formidable flair for arresting texture and a great rhythmic variety. Contrary to that of, say, Takemitsu, Zhouís music is full of rhythmic vitality, as is evident in The Rhyme of Taigu and still more so in Da Qu, a percussion concerto in all but the name. Both pieces look still further East and allude to the historical and cultural cross-fertilisation that impacted on ancient Chinese and Japanese traditions. Taigu, an ancient Chinese drumming tradition, later evolved into Japanese taiku drumming, whereas Da Qu alludes to an ancient form of court music that is the equivalent of the Japanese gagaku. It is thus not surprising that percussion, be it orchestral or soloist, plays an important part in these impressive scores. Rhythm is paramount, sometimes in a fairly clear Stravinskian way, without obscuring the more lyrical aspects.

As many of his contemporaries, such as Chen Yi (who later became his wife), Zhou was a victim of the so-called Cultural Revolution, so that much of his music is Ė in one way or another Ė a reflection on this dreadful period in modern Chinese history. The Cultural Revolutionís main goal was to get rid of the ancient cultural background, but it nevertheless achieved a somewhat different result, in that younger Chinese composers, such as Chen Yi, Bright Sheng, Qigang Chen and Zhou Long, to name but a few, thoroughly explored their countryís cultural past. This they did through the prism of the modern musical techniques they all managed to acquire in the West, either in the States (Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng) or in France (Qigang Chen).

The last item The Future of Fire for wordless mixed chorus (or childrenís chorus) and orchestra, a short anthem based on material from a Shaanxi love song, depicts "[Zhouís] memories of farmers burning off dried grass to prepare the land for planting, but losing control of the flame". In his excellent notes, Ken Smith sees this short piece as a "vivid, if charitable, metaphor for the Cultural Revolution". This rousing, approachable work rounds off this superb release in an optimistic manner, "the powerful energy of the younger generation and the passionate hope for peace in the new millennium" (the composerís own words).

Zhouís is a personal, distinctive voice; and his beautifully crafted music achieves a remarkable synthesis of Western and Eastern musical traditions with musically rewarding results. Lan Shui conducts vital and colourful readings of these attractive scores by one of the most endearing composers of his generation. BISís working association with the Singapore Symphony orchestra and Shan Lui has already yielded some interesting results; but the present release is, as far as I am concerned, the finest so far.

Hubert Culot

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