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CHEN Qi-gang (b. 1951)
Wu Xing (The Five Elements) [9:53]
La Joie de la souffrance (Concerto for Violin) [26:33]
Fritz KREISLER (1875-1962)
Tambourin chinois, Op.3 [3:49]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Symphonic Dances, Op.45 [34:03]
Maxim Vengerov (violin), Shanghai Symphony Orchestra / Long Yu
rec. 2018, Shanghai Symphony Hall, China
DG 483 6606 [74:21]

There is the whiff of cliché hanging around this first release on DG from the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. To mark their first signing of a Chinese orchestra, DG have thought long and hard about the Western image of China and have come up with a black-and-white photo on the front cover of Long Yu standing by that most iconic of Mao-era machines, a bicycle (they drew the line at dressing him up in a boiler suit and red-star adorned cap) and another with him sitting alone in a deserted concert hall – symbolically representing the lonely furrow Western Classical musicians had to plough in China during the dark days of the Cultural Revolution. I’m not comfortable, either, with James Jolly’s booklet notes which, in their desire to place the Shanghai Symphony as a venerable ensemble in the world of symphony orchestras, sometimes prefer easy platitude to dispassionate fact. The programme, too, touches on the cliché with the appearance mid-way through the programme of Kreisler’s piece of mock-Chinese kitsch, the Tambourin chinois, and passages in Chen Qi-gang’s violin concerto which seem almost to ape the tradition of Chinese fiddling. And quite what we are to make of an orchestra from the largest remaining Communist state playing music written for the world’s largest Capitalist state by a Russian composer whose opposition to Communism was so strong that he felt unable to continue to live under Soviet rule?

There will be those who argue that symphonic music has such independent potency that it sweeps aside all such political considerations, and certainly such thoughts are both peripheral and irrelevant to assessing this new recording in the context of an international review website. But not for the first time, I wonder at the DG marketing people’s apparent shallowness when it comes to handling artists from Asia (they did a pretty appalling job some years ago with Yuja Wang’s Rachmaninov disc). If, as many have said, China is the emerging superpower in the world of Western Music, DG’s eagerness to get in on the act needs more sensitive handling to avoid any hint of Germanic condescension.

DG have, however, supported the 140-year-old Shanghai Symphony with a gloriously full-bodied and detailed recording, and while the programme is, to put it kindly, unevenly idiosyncratic, there is enough of real originality and distinction here to make this a hugely attractive release. Maxim Vengerov is, in any context, an arresting presence, and while Tambourin chinois sticks out of this programme like a sore thumb, heard in isolation, this is a brilliant virtuoso display of astounding violin technique. Perhaps we should not begrudge Vengerov his moment of glory, when he can let his hair down and simply shine as the brilliant virtuoso player he is.

Vengerov’s real purpose here, though, is to present the first recording of Chen Qi-gang’s La Joie de la souffrance, a concerto for violin and orchestra which was in part written for the 2018 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition (at which it was performed by all six finalists). Vengerov gave the work’s first performance (with the China Philharmonic Orchestra and Long Yu in October 2017) and has clearly developed a deep insight into the piece. Based on the ancient Chinese melody, The Song of Yang Guan, which tells of friend bidding farewell in the early morning to one who is undertaking a risky mission to a frontier and who may not return, Chen’s music is in the form of a great arch, opening and ending in a mood of mystery and travelling along the way through a series of enchanting musical adventures which gradually build to a sizzling climax. While Vengerov leads this journey through a vast array of various moods – from the placid and static to the exotic and impassioned by way of the sprightly and frenzied, at times drawing on some traditional Chinese playing devices – the support from the orchestra is magnificent, full of great, expansive breadth and bursting into life at the climax with an electrifying explosion of brilliant collective virtuosity. Yu is hugely sympathetic, giving Vengerov ample space to illuminate Chen’s richly romantic harmonies, and drawing some superbly crafted playing from his Shanghai musicians.

You would not immediately recognise in the luxuriant romantic language of La Joie de la souffrance the hand of Olivier Messiaen, but Chen was one of Messiaen’s last composition pupils and certainly in his earlier work, Wu Xing, the influence of his teacher is very apparent. These five short movements each depict one of the five elements in as described by scholars of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) – Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal – and Chen’s philosophical approach interprets these along characteristically Chinese lines, and in a musical language which is highly original. Of the current crop of active Chinese composers who have studied in the West, Chen is certainly one of the most gifted and consistently imaginative, and this recording is, if nothing else, a magnificent testament to his compositional genius. While almost 20 years separate these two works, there is clearly a very distinctive voice here, while as an exhibition of orchestral effects, Wu Xing could hardly be bettered.

It seems obvious that the inclusion of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances is also intended to show off the range and scope of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. And so it does, with plenty of outstanding playing from the various groupings within the band. But I am not sure Long Yu is wholly in his element here, and the performance has a hard edge to it, as if embarrassed by the brazen Americanisms (that sultry saxophone solo in the first dance feels quite awkward). Perhaps because of the context of this recording, we are made particularly aware of Rachmaninov’s own bit of pseudo-Chinoiserie in the first movement [9:57], after which the steam seems to go out of the performance and the remaining movements have an almost uninvolved feel to them.

Marc Rochester

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