This disc was originally released in 2000. Two CDs of Taiwan-based
Cantonese composer Fu-Tong Wong's music were issued earlier
this year on his own label, and well received - see reviews
Inexplicably, Taiwanese label Wind Music categorise this one
on their website - apparently the most reliable place to source
it - under "World and Ethno-Pop Music", which, to
put it mildly, is an insult to Wong's musicianship. The music
on this release is every bit as good as on those previous ones
- there can be no question that Wong - often referred to as
Wong Fu-Tong - has an unerring talent for combining beautiful
Chinese and Taiwanese melodies, rhythms and inspirations with
Western techniques, harmonies and forms into imaginative, passionate,
opulent works of immense general appeal.
The first two items, the title track Rhapsody of Taiwan, and In Memoriam, are for full orchestra. In Memoriam is a dramatic tribute in the best tone poem tradition to those who died in Taiwan's bloody history, not least the 1999 earthquake. Rhapsody of Taiwan is more forward-looking, expressing the country's "life force [and] fertile beauty" with lilting sweeps of melody punctuated with triumphant bursts and the odd jig-like episode.
The Xi Shi Fantasy is based on Wong's only opera so far, Xi Shi. The work, which is more or less a violin concerto, consists of four distinct sections that recount the love woes of the eponymous heroine, one of the apocryphal Four Beauties of Ancient China whose loveliness had a tendency to bring ruin upon kingdoms. Wong considers this piece, which was premiered in 1993 at the famous Musikverein in Vienna, one of his signature works, and in it he has attempted to "embody the qualities of Bach's music and Chinese opera" and his aim to combine Eastern and Western ideas in his music. The Bach-Chinese opera fusion is a curious notion, perhaps, but one in keeping with Wong's belief that Bach is "the founder of all compositions", as he writes in his 2004 book Theory on Music. Aptly, this virtuosic work has plenty of drama, but also lyrical pastoralism, dance and rhapsodic beauty. It is beautifully played by Su Shien-Ta. Wong's own version for violin and piano is available on a disc entitled Postcards From China, for a review of which see the second of the two links above.
The final two pieces are for string orchestra alone. The Variations are a homage to a friend of Wong's who died of cancer, an appropriate blend of happy times and sadness, whereas the beautiful Fugato takes its inspiration from ancient Chinese texts. These are lush, quasi British-sounding works: the Fugato is almost Vaughan Williams-like in its pastoralism and is undoubtedly one of Wong's finest.
The orchestral performances here, though hardly faultless, are on the whole pretty decent, good enough in any case not to detract from Wong's lovely music. The Taipei Sinfonietta, now the Taipei Philharmonic, was knocked into terrific shape over two decades by Henry Mazer after he left the Chicago Symphony. His two recordings here must have been among his last - he died in 2001. John van Deursen conducts In Memoriam at a time when he was principal trombonist with the orchestra, and the remaining two works are conducted by Fu-Tong Wong himself.
The CD booklet has 20 pages of notes for those who can read Chinese, but only three in slightly shaky English - really just a brief description of the works and a note on the composer, with nothing on performers. Su Shien-Ta, the soloist in the Xi Shi Fantasy, is only listed in the Chinese section of the notes; in the bilingual track listing his name is given, but the fact that he is soloist is only indicated in Chinese - with the same being true for the conductors. There are several spelling mistakes in the English, with not even Mazer or Wong escaping error-free. The final work is listed as a Fugatto, and Chen' Chu-Shui is transcribed as Zhu Shuei Chen on Wong's own website.
Neither is there any information given on the date(s) or place(s) of recordings. However, sound quality is generally good, although there is variation from one track to another - most notably different is the Xi Shi Fantasy, in which the orchestra and especially the soloist are a bit too far back from the microphones. The booklet does not say explicitly, but these are live recordings, with audience noise adeptly kept to a minimum - just the odd faint cough here and there, and some page-turning in the Xi Shi Fantasy.
The CD producers have regrettably faded down the ends of tracks too quickly - presumably to eradicate the applause - with the result that in some cases the still resounding music is fractionally curtailed in an unnatural manner. The effect is worst in the first track - tracks 2 and 4 are not affected, and tracks 3 and 5 only marginally so. Track 4 has the opposite problem, so to speak: a fraction shaved off the opening. Finally, the CD is almost absurdly short.
Nonetheless, Wong is a superb melodicist and a fine orchestrator - a latter-day Taiwanese Dvorák! - and his music - this CD in particular - deserves the widest of audiences in the West.
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk