YIN Chengzong (b.1941)/ SHENG Lihong (b.1926)/ CHU Wanghua (b.1941)/ LIU Zhuang (1932-2011)/ SHI Shucheng (333)/ XU Feisheng (333)
The Yellow River Piano Concerto (1969) [21:54]
CHEN Gang (?)/ HE Zhanhao (b.1933)
The Butterfly Lovers Piano Concerto (1985) [27:06]
Chen Jie (piano)
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Carolyn Kuan
rec. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, New Zealand, 14-16 September 2011
NAXOS 8.570607 [49:00]
As we all know, especially when reminded by Christmas advertising campaigns, record companies’ marketing departments have been attempting to widen the definition of “classical music” for years. To the horror of purists - perceived by their opponents, needless to say, as snobs - we see film scores generically labelled “classical” merely on the grounds that they are performed by orchestras. Meanwhile, singers promoting “crossover” albums are marketed as opera stars even though they have never actually sung in staged operatic performances.
Although such purists might be equally bemused to find these two Chinese scores designated as concertos, let’s concede that that particular word has, in its time, encompassed a sizeable variety of forms. While formal structure and development may not be the most obvious characteristics on show here, perhaps if we see The yellow river and The butterfly lovers primarily as rhapsodies - “free in structure and highly emotional in character” [Collins English Dictionary] - we will be on a more enlightening track.
Each of them certainly offers plenty of appealing melody and sub-Rachmaninov passion that can be, at the very least, momentarily involving. Their characteristic idiom will, if you’ve ever flown with a Chinese airline, immediately bring to mind the type of music that’s played quietly while boarding is under way. I’m not, incidentally, being in any way patronising here. I actually bought a CD of the EVA Airways boarding music from the duty free trolley - and it would have conclusively justified Noël Coward’s observation “Extraordinary how potent cheap music can be” if they hadn’t actually charged me full price for it.
I confess here a distinct preference between these two works. I invariably succumb to the sheer in-your-face agitprop bombast and vulgarity of the The yellow river - a piece that suddenly falls into focus when you appreciate that it was produced, in its final form, by a presumably terrified committee of the Chinese Communist Party during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, The butterfly lovers - the title referring not to enthusiastic Lepidoptera collectors, by the way, but to human lovers who are transformed into butterflies - has always struck me as a rather dull, colourless piece: less a Red Admiral than a Cabbage White.
The Naxos label has, though, tended to exhibit the opposite preference. Its star violinist Takako Nishizaki - married, incidentally, to Naxos boss Klaus Heymann - clearly has a soft spot for the Butterfly lovers and has made at least four recordings over the years: with the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra in the 1970s; with the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Kenneth Jean in 1990 (8.223350); with the Shanghai Conservatory Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fan Chengwu just two years later (8.554334); and, in 2003, with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under James Judd (8.557348, see here and here). Meanwhile, The yellow river concerto, occasionally recorded on other labels too (see here for a brief overview of some notable accounts), has appeared on Naxos sister label Marco Polo in a 1991 recording of soloist Yin Chen-Zong, supported by the Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper.
This new disc is not, though, simply one more in this line of recordings. Ms Nishizaki is not the featured soloist in The butterfly lovers. Instead, what we have here is the transformation of the piece from one for violin and orchestra to another where the piano has assumed the solo role.
Perhaps the marketing men have been busy once again. After all, were they to attempt to identify the most successful classical recording project of recent decades, a strong contender would be Hyperion’s Romantic piano concerto series. The CD-buying public has, it seems, an insatiable appetite for piano concertos, a point emphasised even more strongly when the same company’s Romantic violin concertos and Romantic cello concertos series don’t appear to have had the same popular impact. So why not rewrite other repertoire to satisfy the demands of the market?
Transforming violin concertos into piano concertos is nothing new. Beethoven himself revised his initially unsuccessful violin concerto so that it emerged, as op.61a, in a version for piano and orchestra. Coming right up to date, as recently as 2008 the Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić rearranged the Brahms violin concerto into a notional piano concerto “no.3” (see here). The year before that Alexander Warenberg had arranged Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony as a “piano concerto no.5” (see here).
The performances on this new disc are very good indeed. Chen Jie - described by the New York Times as “more than a virtuosic clone” - is an enthusiast for Chinese music who has already recorded a disc of Chinese piano favourites for Naxos (8.570602).
I have heard no other recordings of the piano version of The butterfly lovers, so am unable to make comparisons. I do, though, think that the piece probably works better with a string soloist because the violin sound suits the “gently flying butterflies” passages rather better: think about The lark ascending with a piano and you will get the point. A violin also blends, I think, more effectively with the particular orchestration of the piece.
When it comes to the rather more “Western” sound-world of The yellow river, Ms Chen need fear comparison with no-one. This is a superlative account in which she displays huge verve and dynamism, as well as some affecting sensitivity when it is - admittedly not too often - required. The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra match the quality of the soloist’s playing and Carolyn Kuan - the first woman to be awarded the Herbert von Karajan Conducting Fellowship - also does a sterling job.
The recording is generally a fine one too, though at one or two points in The butterfly lovers I found the piano to be rather too set back when the orchestra was at its most lush. As the New Zealand players were briefly but über-romantically rolling out one of the “big tunes” between 12:47 and 13:10 - a point at which, were this The yellow river concerto, a rousing rendition of The east is red would certainly have appeared - the piano seemed rather sadly lost among it all.
The Naxos booklet notes are something of a disappointment. If the disc’s unique selling point is the piano version of The butterfly lovers, surely we deserve to be told more than that “In 1985 Chen Gang arranged the Concerto for piano and orchestra. It was given its first performance and recorded by the renowned Chinese pianist Hsu Feiping.” It would, for instance, have been interesting to discover whether the change of solo instrument necessitated any major rewriting of the score and, if so, how? A few comments by Ms Chen on how she perceives the “new” piece might also have been of interest in this case, even though I appreciate that Naxos booklet notes usually keep to a more soberly factual outline.
Overall, then, this makes an enjoyable programme - as well as an effective showcase for Chen Jie. If you already own a violin version of The butterfly lovers, the piano version will make an interesting supplement. If you do not, the Naxos price bracket may perhaps tempt you to buy, as well as this disc under review, one of Ms Nishizaki’s several winningly played accounts.
Plenty of appealing melody and sub-Rachmaninov passion.
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