Naxos Travelogues - Cultural Tours of China - with traditional music
A series of five Naxos DVDs visiting areas of China not normally visited by foreigners, but popular tourist venues for the indigenous population
Picture format: NTSC 16:9. Sound format: Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1/DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide). Booklet notes in English and Chinese
Faced with these five DVDs, I felt a little like the ancient visitor to the orient who when offered the pleasures of the harem, looked around, but scarcely knew where to begin. The cover pictures show captivating scenery including an eroded mountainside, snow scenes and an imposing city. One stood out, as I think it might for any casual browser whose vision of China would certainly include the Great wall. But this wall is not that of the renowned Great Wall, a World Heritage site near Beijing the Chinese capital, but of the ancient walled city of Pingyao, once a thriving commercial centre in Shanxi. So, rather than following a geographical direction from the north, for example, I started my coverage with this more central area and its captivating walled town far to the west-south-west of Beijing.
As to general comments on this sequence of five DVDs, let me start with the good news before the bad, both of which are found in all of them. First, the photography is outstanding. Use an up-scaling blu- ray player and the latest TV LED technology and the atmosphere of the towns and the sheer spectacular nature of the scenery will blow you away. The main problem is that in trying to read the notes in the accompanying booklet, you will get lost as to exactly what you are looking at: which lake; which temple? Oh for a few words on the picture such as one gets with say an opera transmission with translation. Another alternative would be the more extensive use of chapter/track divisions rather than the derisory dozen or so, which is the practice here. This latter limitation applies to all the Naxos Travelogues I have seen. Even as I have watched DVDs in this series of places in France or of Venice for example, that I know well, I have lost the sequence when a scene or interesting place is shown that I do not know and am dependant on sorting it from the notes.
As to this series on China, although I have made an extensive visit to the country, even getting beyond the standard tourist trek, I have never taken in any of these provinces with their diverse climates, cultural backgrounds and magnificent scenery.
Also missing, and more obvious than in those covering European destinations, where composers and orchestral structure is well known, are any descriptions of the musical instruments being played. On a couple of occasions the viewer can see what is being played, but from listening, and whilst recognising regional differences on some occasions, it would have been helpful to see the timpani, woodwind and strings being played. Such a view is shown in CH.10 of Yunnan Province with ancient Naxi music being played. I would have to be an expert in Chinese traditional music to name the instruments, although some medieval music experts might recognize similarities in some of the stringed instruments being bowed or plucked with those that evolved in Europe. Unless I point out particular differences in a Province, the accompanying traditional Chinese music is much of a muchness and easily becomes aural wallpaper.
Naxos DVD 2.110556 [67.07]
The Province of Shanxi is situated west-south-west of Beijing. The major centre of Taigan is 375Km from the capital with the ancient walled city of Pingyao, the illustration on the cover that will catch your eye being a further 450Km away. Pingyao is the best-preserved ancient walled city in China (CH.1). It thrived during the Ming Dynasty between 1368-1644 AD. The former wealth of the Province is illustrated by the Courtyard Houses of wealthy families, all with extensive compounds dating principally from the 18th century (CH.3).
Pingyao is world heritage site. To go alongside the walled city is the spectacular Shuanglin Temple with its collection of 2,000 painted statues from the Song and Yuan dynasties (CH.4). The nearby mountains, many with religious connotations, are equally awesome as are the sacred monasteries and other temples and pagodas galore (CHs.5-7). The most remarkable of all is the Hanging Monastery at the foot of Mount Heng, one of the Five Sacred Mountains of Taoism, apparently hanging on a sheer cliff-face (CH.8). The carvings of the Yungang Grottos, some 51,000 statues of the Buddha in 252 caverns, dating originally from the 5th and 6th centuries are equally impressive (CH.10).
The accompanying traditional Chinese music is little different from others in the series.
Naxos DVD 2.110557 [59.49]
Located in the far north-west of China this autonomous region borders Kazakstan, Kyrgystan and Mongolia. The ethnic mix is clearly represented in the features of the local population and perhaps also influences the music that is more heavily timpani dominated, with what sounds like steel drums featuring heavily. The ethnic diversity is also reflected in the living conditions and which feature Yurts and primitive log cabins of the Kazakh and Mongolian inhabitants. The capital, Urumqi is 30Km from the geographical centre of the continent of Asia with its distinctive sculpture that looks like a giant plumb-line marking the spot.
The physical geography is diverse as shown by the views of lakes, plateaux with sheep, deserts with camels and fantastically eroded rocks and glaciers, these natural features making a sharp contrast with the largest wind farm in Asia. But, given the geographical position, a surprise is the growing of grapes. Lush bunches of the white Turpan grape are harvested and then hung out to dry. No explanation is given as to why. Is it a variant of the noble rot developed in the autumn in Bordeaux and which gives the divine and expensive renowned sweet wines such as Barsac?
The wailing of the woodwind and the steely timpani are distinctive musical sounds in the accompanying traditional music.
Naxos DVD 2.110558 [63.39]
The front picture tells a lot of the story of this region. Whilst snow is a feature because of the mountainous terrain that protected it from invasion for centuries, it shares the same latitude as Shanghai. Bordering part of Tibet it is twice as far southwest from Beijing as Shanxi. It is a land of lakes and snow-capped mountains, with a fertile central plain. But the sub-tropics also have an influence at this latitude with Qingcheng Mountain a mere 1300 metres high boasting plum and palm tree-lined trails for the tourists on their way to the holy Taoist mountain and its temples with carved, curved statues and statuettes (CH.5).
Snow Mountain, the Oriental Alps, (CH.8) had a significant part to play in China’s more recent history with the Red Army climbing over it during The Long March of 1934-36 (CH.8). The region is also famous for silk brocade (CH.10) and the water falls of Nuoriling, the widest in the region, which freeze in winter. The Buddhist Mount Emei, 130Km from Chengdu draws many indigenous tourists to see the sunsets which are enjoyed here without the hassle of the hawkers and the noise (CH.14). The accompanying music is perhaps more melodic to western ears with woodwind and plucked strings dominant.
Naxos DVD 2.110560 [61.08]
A region of mountains and lakes, the province of Yunnan lies to the south of Sichuan and in the far south-west of China. It has borders with Burma (Myanmar) to the west, Laos and Vietnam to its south whilst in the north-west it is contiguous with Tibet. At 24 degrees south it shares latitude with Taiwan and Japan. Its historic capital Kunming, has a population in excess of five million and a history of two and one half thousand years. (CH.4). With its history and distinctive minarets and towers Kunming is the most popular tourist destination in the province. Bordering Sichuan and Tibet the area of Shangri La in the north west of the province is aptly named and has natural beauty and tranquillity; its views live up to its name with precipitous impressive scenery (CH.9).
The captivating picture on the front of the DVD needs just a little study to discern what one is looking at. It is a Stone Forest produced by the erosion of a form of limestone called Karst (CH.5). It is extremely rare and was formed 270 million years ago, its stone teeth the consequence of constant erosion by the monsoon climate which also accounts for the caves, lakes and other unique geological features.
Yunnan is the home of the Naxi people and their music is distinct in character. As I have noted above, it is one of the few occasions that the viewer gets to see the instrumentalists of the various regions covered in this series (CH.10). Put the scene on pause and get your encyclopaedias out.
Naxos DVD 2.110559 [61.27]
Knowing something of the tortuous history and annexation of what is described here as Tibet, Autonomous Region of China, I at one time considered dealing with it as a separate entity from the rest of the series. On reflection I decided that such a neo-political statement was not appropriate to Musicweb International.
For once in this series, the view on the front of the DVD box fails abysmally to do justice to what is shown. Thankfully the DVD itself more than compensates. I am aware that I have littered superlatives about the sites and situations illustrated in this collection. I suggest you collect the superlatives all together and even then they would not adequately describe what is shown in the opening (CH1). It is the awesome view of the location and structure of the Potala Palace located 2Km north-west of Lhasa the remote capital of Tibet. The massive Palace has two distinct and easily recognisable parts, the White Palace completed in 1645 and the Red Palace being completed in 1694. The fifth Dalai Lama lived there.
The Lhasa River is one of five tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra, so important to the Buddhists. The music of recorder backing a very high-pitched human voice is very distinctive (CH.2). The Jokhang Temple (CH.3) dating from the 7th century, houses a revered image of the Buddha. The music of a drone and timpani and periodic antiphonic chants of the monks are particularly distinctive. The streets nearby are shown later (CH.9).
Fifty kilometres to the north-east is the Ganden Monastery. It is the seat of the Gelupga Buddhist order and holds important religious relics (CH.7). The reputedly oldest building in Tibet, a place of many legends concludes this tour. A tapering structure, its building seems to sprout from a craggy ridge overlooking a patchwork of fields (CH.10).
Tibetan music - the chanting of monks and other vocal and instrumental pieces - is among the most distinctive and characterful in this series.
Robert J Farr
Fantastic scenery and locations marred by an inability to identify all the interesting and magnificent locations shown.