Xia GUAN (b. 1957)
Symphony No.2 ‘Hope’(1999) [43:54]
Earth Requiem: I. Gazing at the Stars: Meditation (1999/2008-09) [9.36]
Sorrowful Dawn – Symphonic Ballade (2000) [18.11]
Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra/En Shao
rec. Musiksaal, Kongresshalle, Nuremberg, August 2014
NAXOS 8.570618 [71.42]

This is another in the enterprising series of recordings of 21st Century Chinese music from Naxos, music which is attractive, well-played and well-recorded. The works recorded here are all world premiere recordings, though the Earth Requiem in its full form is available, conducted by Michel Plasson (Erato 9341192). Of that recording, the Gramophone noted (Awards Issue, 2013), “One only wishes that Guan could have scaled it down a bit”, and the Times (25th May, 2013) reported that … “this piece is like pentatonic Andrew Lloyd Webber, rising to Hollywood-soundtrack portentousness.” I came across these reviews, courtesy of the Presto Classical website, only after I had listened a couple of times to the present CD. These comments effectively summarised what I found here.

The three movement Symphony, the main work on the disc, is described by the composer in terms of a reflection “on the co-existence of agony and hope, good and evil, struggle and persistence”. The music itself is in a conservative idiom, the orchestral writing fluent and competent. Xia Guan is known in China as a composer for film and television soundtracks. One can hear why – there are lovely sounds, beautifully realised, with rich strings. It is very amiable, pretty even. The middle movement has real moments of charm and delicacy, achieved with conventional means not out of place at any time in the last century or so. What seems to be missing is any great stamp of personality. For anyone who is fearful of modern classical music, there is nothing to frighten the horses – it didn’t even scare my guinea-pig.

Earth Requiem was written in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, a disaster which killed more than 80,000 people. Xia Guan visited the area shortly afterwards, and was inspired to write a Requiem, apparently the first by a Chinese composer. This piece begins quietly building over its span to a loud climax. There are more string melodies and much conventional lyricism, with almost no sign of a distinctively Chinese voice, though Chinese instruments are deployed in other parts of the Requiem not recorded here. There is little sense of the genuine grief one would expect from the aftermath of such a tragedy, but rather a generalised vague melancholy and perhaps even sentimentality.

Sorrowful Dawn is about the Chinese War of Liberation in the late 1940s. At one level it is conventional patriotic stuff, with rather conventional heroism concluding in a peaceful picture of the life that follows what the composer calls the “strength and hope of a glorious victory in the great age of revolution”. There is certainly a strength absent from the other pieces, within a grasp of overall structure.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic, given the commitment of the performances and production. This is attractive music for background listening, in the way that some of the Hollywood soundtracks have been, but too little is distinctive in these bland sounds.

Michael Wilkinson

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