Vivian FUNG (b.1975)
Violin Concerto (2010-11) [20:56]
Glimpses, for prepared piano (2006) [10:36]
Piano Concerto Dreamscapes (2009) [25:39]
Kristin Lee (violin)
Conor Hanick (piano, prepared piano)
Metropolis Ensemble/Andrew Cyr
rec. Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox MA, USA, 7-8 September 2011 (Concertos); Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, New York, 2 November 2011 (Glimpses). DDD
Doubtless more than a few eyebrows were raised when someone at Naxos suggested a 'Canadian Classics' series. How many people can name even half a dozen Canadian composers, past or present? Yet Canada's relatively invisible presence on the international art music stage does not mean that it has no composers of note. On the contrary, it may be merely a matter of getting someone to listen. All the more reason, then, for a label like Naxos to take another brave plunge and forge ahead with such a series. In quantitative terms it will probably never match their 'American Classics' brand, which already has around 400 titles to its credit. This is especially true if Naxos continue at the pace at which they have begun, this being only the third release in the first fifteen months.
Nonetheless, the first CD - orchestral works by Jeffrey Ryan (review) - and the follow-up, an anthology covering the contemporary choral scene in Canada (8.572812), got the series off to an impressive start, especially for listeners for whom a soundly tradition-honoured basis to their modern music is important. This latest release, three fine works by Chinese-Canadian Vivian Fung, is more of the same in that respect: formal orthodoxy, broadly tonal melody, exciting rhythms, splashes of exotica. Add to this the terrific playing heard here - especially by the two young soloists, both superb on their Naxos debuts in music that is mentally as well as physically demanding - and the result is a disc that is every inch a Canadian classic.
The opening Violin Concerto is a good introduction to Fung, offering an immediate vista of her understated but brilliant orchestration and her technically demanding but musically riveting writing for the violin. With the further attraction of a Javan-flavoured final section, this could easily slip into any concert programme alongside a Brahms or Shostakovich concerto without any disservice to audience or musicians.
By way of contrast, the Piano Concerto has perhaps less immediate appeal. Despite a number of sections that might have come from, say, Prokofiev or Bartók, Fung employs some unusual effects that, on paper at least, may come over as la-di-da. In the prologue, for example, the pianist must use a plectrum to play his instrument's strings, to the accompaniment of seven Vietnamese bird whistles; and right at the end the orchestra lay their instruments aside in order to rub the rims of wine glasses whilst the pianist plays out. Yet without this prior knowledge it is all but impossible not to be captivated by the haunting beauty of these effects, which Fung moreover works seamlessly into the body of a second first-class concerto.
A work for solo 'prepared' piano may seem an odd filling for a concerto sandwich, but Glimpses employs such a range of sounds in its three sections that the effect is almost orchestral - at least in a gamelan sense. Clips, ice-lolly sticks, a metal bar, sticky tape, greased string and a porcelain bowl are all attached to or placed on the piano strings at various junctures. John Cage's name is almost synonymous with the prepared piano, despite the fact that both idea and practice predate him considerably. Fung's writing is altogether more listener-friendly and decidedly less pretentious than the bulk of Cage's, with harp-like ostinatos, ethereal strummings and even a quasi-aboriginal drone never failing to keep the listener's attention.
Though this disc has rather a short running-time - Fung herself would surely have preferred to see an extra work or two recorded for this, her debut monograph - the excellent sound quality more than makes amends. If only more European labels would employ engineers and producers of this quality.
Annotator Frank J Oteri is editor of the trendy American new music website NewMusicBox, and describes himself as an "outspoken crusader for new music and the breaking down of barriers between genres". Alas for him, Fung's music never slides from the art music plane, even where she instructs the violinist to "play like a rock star", but Oteri's notes are nevertheless sympathetic, detailed and interesting.
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Understated but brilliant … technically demanding but musically riveting.

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