Yundi: The Red Piano
XIAN Xinghai (1905-1945)
The Yellow River piano concerto (1970) [21:18]
Arr. ZHANG Zhao (?)
In that place wholly far away (?) [3:57]
Arr. WANG Jianzhong (?)
Glowing red Morningstar lilies (?) [4:24]
ZHANG Zhao (?)
Pi huang (?) [6:10]
MA Jingfeng (?) and ZHANG Nan (?),
Remote Shangri-la (?) [2:36]
Arr. WANG Jianzhong (?)
Liu Yang river (1951) (3:29)
Arr. ZHANG Zhao (?)
Kangding love song (?) [1:31]
REN Guang (1900-1941)
Colourful clouds chasing the moon (1935) [3:17]
Arr. WANG Jianzhong (?)
Five Yunnan folk songs (1958) [5:34]
ZHU Jian’er (b. 1922)
Celebrating our new life (1952) [1:44]
LEI Zhenbang (1916-1997)
Why are the flowers so red? (?) [1:53]
LIU Chi (?)
My motherland (?) [6:03]
Yundi (piano)
China NCPA Concert Hall Orchestra/Chen Zuohuang
rec. Concert Hall, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, 2-5 July 2011
EMI CLASSICS 0886582 [62:11]

Booklet notes writer Edward Morton Jack gets the Yellow River piano concerto spot on when he describes it as “more a series of tunes arranged for piano and orchestra than a formal concerto”. It is, in fact, the sort of thing that would appeal to those possessed of a musical sweet tooth. Try it if you appreciate such concertante lollipops as Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, Charles Williams’ The dream of Olwen or Nino Rota’s The legend of the glass mountain.
Originally composed as a cantata at the beginning of the Second World War, the Yellow River concerto has, since its final politically-driven revision (by committee!) in the Cultural Revolution of the early 1970s, been recorded surprisingly frequently. My own shelves hold a 1990 recording from Yin Cheng-Zong (Marco Polo 8.223412) as well as others from Eileen Huang (1994 – on ASV CD DCA 1031) and Shen Shucheng (recording details unspecified on Olympia OCD 701, but possibly recorded c.1994).
I also own the Deutsche Grammophon DVD Dragon songs ( 00440 073 4191 ) in which Lang Lang, flamboyantly dressed in a white tuxedo, plays the piece while accompanied by “100 female piano players” and no less than four full symphony orchestras, all occupying an enormous stage. It’s the sort of big-scale extravaganza that the fascinating mid-nineteenth century maverick Louis Moreau Gottschalk used to go in for. It looks pretty grotesque 150 years later and I’m afraid that an image of Liberace kept popping into my mind all through the film.
As well as those, I imagine that there must be many other recordings around – a number probably circulating only in China where the piece remains hugely popular - this new disc’s back cover refers to it as “music of iconic status”. Now Yundi joins the fray.
Iconic within China though it may be, in fact the Yellow River concerto’s limited scale and ambitions and its often derivative nature means that it offers few opportunities for pianists to make much of an individual mark on it. Of the recordings I’ve mentioned, Yin Cheng-Zhong offers perhaps the most distinctive version as he adopts relatively speedy tempi throughout – but, in other respects, there is little to differentiate the others’ approaches.
Yin Cheng-Zong, 1990
Eileen Huang, 1994
Shen Shucheng, c.1994?
Lang Lang, 2005
Yundi, 2011
I: Song of the Yellow River boatman
II: Ode to the Yellow River
III: Wrath of the Yellow River
IV: Defend the Yellow River

Perhaps the most striking element of the new Yundi disc is its sound quality, for its engineers have provided a reverberant acoustic that exaggerates even more than usual the concerto’s aspirations to grandeur and its political rhetoric. The latter quality is especially apparent in the final movement which makes great play of familiar musical phrases from The internationale and The east is red (see here on Youtube for a typically bombastic Maoist-era account that within just a few minutes veers off into distinctly Busby Berkeley territory in a way that the aforesaid Liberace would no doubt have loved).
If the Yellow River concerto appeals to you, this is a version that is at least as good as the others and, by playing up the music for all it’s worth, Yundi – whether he intends to or not - puts it in its proper context as primarily a piece of mid-century Communist agitprop rather than a real contribution to musical history.
In complete contrast, the disc is filled out – if, that is, a total time of just over 62 minutes justifies the word “filled” – by short pieces that that, according to the EMI blurb, “show Yundi at his most personal and beguiling”. They are arrangements of Chinese folk songs, other songs that are well-known in the country and some specially composed material. Fairly typical is the original source of track 17, Celebrating our new life – which turns out to be an arrangement of music from a 1952 Chinese government documentary film The Great Land Reform. I must try to catch it next time it shows up at the local multiplex … These fillers are all pleasant enough but a single hearing was, in truth, quite enough for me.
Incidentally, the title The red piano doesn’t only refer to the concerto’s political origins. Even though you can find no reference to the fact in the booklet – which concentrates exclusively on the music – Yundi does from time to time play on a piano that’s been coloured a rather nauseous shade of red (see here on Youtube). That’s another gimmick that’s more than a little reminiscent of Liberace. Can we expect the candelabra next?
Rob Maynard

Can we expect the candelabra next?