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Silk Baroque
Wu Wei (Sheng)
Holland Baroque
No recording data provided
PENTATONE PTC5186800 SACD [68:00]

It is not easy either to define what this disc is all about or to understand quite what purpose it serves other than as an extraordinarily capacious musical melting pot into which have been thrown flavours both ancient and modern, western and eastern, along with hints of Hungarian dances, an American Hoe-Down, Indian ragas, Chinese folk melodies, electronically reprocessed effects and the Westminster chimes. We have, for example, Rebel’s infamous representation of Chaos superimposed with the sound of rushing wind, breaking off into a florid East-European-style cadenza for Chinese Sheng and ending up with something which sounds as if it started life in one of Vivaldi’s Seasons.

But does music need to be defined, to be locked up into little boxes in the way the 19th century German writers did when they first decided to define musical periods and identify “great” composers, or is that no longer relevant in a musical world where crossover is not so much a label as an everyday reality? And does a recording need to have a purpose beyond bringing aural pleasure to those who access it?

It should be pretty obvious that, if nothing else, this is thought-provoking and challenging to those of us who devote our lives to music of one sort or another. In my book, that’s a pretty successful thing for any recording to achieve, and along the way it provides listening pleasure to those with ears open enough to get over the constant array of surprises and stylistic shifts.

So what do we have beyond the 15 named tracks listed below? The answer is everything. For while there are 15 labelled tracks, few of them are identifiable on the disc itself, which plays an almost continuous flow of music, crossing stylistic, temporal and geographical borders with a freedom and abandon which is startling. You simply do not know where the corners are, let alone what you will find around them. One thing, and one thing only, is guaranteed. And that is that the players of Holland Baroque – 12 of them on traditional Baroque instruments – have all the freshness, vigour and stylistic integrity of the very best baroque ensembles around. We do get to sample them on that home turf, as it were, in a truly invigorating performance of the Sinfonia to Telemann’s Cantata Sei tausendmal willkommen (TWV13:9a), but that is one of the few “straight” performances on the disc. Otherwise a (usually) Baroque musical core is transformed by the addition of other musical voices - a soprano (Sojeong Im), a percussionist (Matteo Rabolini,) and the sheng virtuoso Wu Wei – into a kind of global and ageless aural experience which is nothing if not utterly fascinating. Wu’s hauntingly evocative solo in the traditional Chinese Dancing Song of the Yao Tribe is one of the more memorable features of the disc.

Judith and Tineke Steenbrink, who have made all the arrangements and functioned as Artistic Leaders of the whole project, have written an explanatory essay in which they describe the Sheng as “a miracle of harmony, melody and rhythmic possibilities”. It seems this is what fired their imagination and inspired them to see what would happen when ancient Chinese and western traditions were brought together. Many composers attempt to fuse ancient Chinese with modern western musical ideas, but this fusing of two historic musical genres is very unusual. Yet it is curiously effective. The Steenbrinks ask, “How does the Sheng fit with Rameau and Leclair?”. The answer seems to be pretty well, when the playing is so accomplished, the musicians so sensitive to each other and the arrangements so empathetic with both sides of what might, in other contexts, be seen as a divide but here is a totally intriguing fusion.

Marc Rochester

Judith Steenbrink (b.1977)/Georg Telemann (1681-1767): What about some bells [7:21]
Jean Philippe Rameau (1683-1764): Tristes Apprêts [6.31]
Judith Steenbrink after Melante: Polonois Chinois [2.53]
Chinese traditional: Pferderennen [1.52]
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741): La Follia [9:14]
Judith Steenbrink/ Jean Philippe Rameau: Prelude for Prelude [2:02]
Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747): Chaos for Wu Wei [3:17]
Wu Wei (b.1970): Improvisation (for my father) [5:17]
Georg Telemann: Harlequinade [0:45]; Sey Tausenmahl Willkommen [3:06]
Judith Steenbrink: Silk Rondeau (for Maite) [3:10]
Jean Marie Leclair (1697-1764): Gavotte [3:52]
Chinese traditional: Dancing song of the Yao Tribe [10:08]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Andante [5:24]
Chinese Traditional: Abendmusik [3:02]

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