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Nai-Chung KUAN (b. 1939)
Memory of Mountain [29:47]
Joel HOFFMAN (b. 1953)
Nautilus Symmetry [25:02]
Violin Concerto No.2, “Snow in Spring” [22:36]
Cho-Liang Lin (violin)
Taipei Chinese Orchestra/Li-Pin Cheng
rec. 1-3 July and 16-17 September 2019, Performing Arts Center Concert Hall, Taipei National University of the Arts, and Kong Haue Sheh Hall, Taipei, Taiwan.
NAXOS 8.574180 [77:36]

The headline composer here is Nai-Chung Kuan and his violin concerto Memory of Mountain the principal work on this recording. As well it might be, for Memory of Mountain is an immediately attractive work which paints beautiful and evocative musical pictures in a most accessible musical language. However, I am far more interested in the second composer represented here, Joel Hoffman, and his Nautilus Symmetry.

On a purely personal level, Joel Hoffman was a fellow student at my university, and while I am certain we never indulged in even the most superficial conversation, I used to see him around the music department library or hovering around the tutorial offices. Truth to be told, I was somewhat in awe of him; his single-minded commitment to composing and his total lack of involvement in any other aspect of university life set him apart from the rest of us undergraduates, and I was certain that he would go on to achieve great things. From time to time in the years immediately following graduation, I thought about what might have become of him, but by the time the internet came along with its incredible ability to track down anyone, anywhere with just a few key-strokes, his name had passed from my consciousness. So, it was with a thrill that I saw it on the cover of this Naxos CD, albeit rather diminished by being overprinted the brightest part of the cover picture. As for his oddly-named Nautilus Symmetry, that piques my professional curiosity since it is not only a very rare example of a work for Chinese orchestra by a western composer, but it was also Hoffmann’s very first venture into the world of Chinese orchestral music.

Modelled on a western orchestra and tracing its origins back just 100 years, a Chinese orchestra replaces several key western instruments with Chinese counterparts and includes a large body of plucked stringed instruments. So, instead of a battalion of first and second violins, we have a body of erhus, banhus, zhonghus and gaohus, and replacing western flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons we find suonas, dixis, gaunzis and xiaos. There are fistfuls of pipas (lutes), yangqins (dulcimers) and shengs (rather like bamboo mouth organs), while the percussion section is augmented by all kind of exotic gongs, cymbals and drums. The sound produced can be very noisy, but also surprisingly sweet and delicate, and for all the uniquely Chinese instruments, it does not always sound a million miles away from the kind of sound a western orchestra produces. Indeed, much of the repertory a Chinese orchestra plays comprises arrangements of western orchestral works, while there is no shortage of new music being composed for Chinese orchestra. Most Chinese orchestras in Asia run competitions intended to root out new composing talent which might otherwise be attracted more to the western orchestra. However, almost every composer writing for Chinese orchestra is either Chinese or steeped in Chinese musical culture, and this includes composers (such as of Kuan) who seem equally at ease writing for western orchestras. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any wholly western composer who has written original music specifically for Chinese orchestra, so Hoffman, who comes, as I seem to recall, from a thoroughly north American background, has done something quite remarkable in writing his Nautilus Symmetry for Chinese Orchestra.

The title refers to the geometric structure of the nautilus shell from which, as Hoffman explains in his own note on the work, the musical structure of the work is derived. That is not something we necessarily pick up from just listening to the work, and there is a sense that Hoffman is rather too easily led astray from any sense of direction by a temptation to experiment and exploit some of the more distinctive qualities of the Chinese orchestra. Often when he seems to land on a good musical idea – and there are a great many of those in the work – he suddenly breaks off to give us a burst of instrumental colour. Happily, he avoids too much of the festive crashing and banging so typical of Chinese music, and his musical language is somewhat more abstract than is customary in a genre which tends to aim at direct musical expressions of concrete images and moods, but perhaps the lack of an obvious narrative thread might prove a barrier to the piece finding a firm foothold in the Chinese orchestra repertory.

Six months separate Nautilus Symmetry from Hoffman’s second work for Chinese orchestra, the Violin Concerto No.2 “Snow in Spring”. Yet it seems he has thoroughly assimilated the musical ethos of the genre, and by incorporating in each of the two movements a well-known traditional Chinese melody (one of which lends its title to the work) and allowing the plucked string instruments to form the bedrock of the orchestral sound, he has come up with a work which deserves to find itself in the repertory of all Chinese orchestras. It helps that the soloist on this recording is not only an accomplished violinist but a man wholly sensitive to the world of the Chinese orchestra. Cho-Liang Lin exudes beauty and lyricism from the solo part as it weaves across Hoffman’s shimmering and often delicate orchestral textures, and while a certain raggedness is evident from the Taipei Chinese Orchestra over the nine pointed chords which open the work (and form, to quote Hoffman, its “backbone”), they respond well to Li-Pin Cheng’s sensitive direvtion. This is a highly effective performance of a most appealing work.

For all the personal and musical interest I derive from Hoffman’s music on this disc, there is no doubt that, when it comes to writing for Chinese orchestra, Nai-Chun Kuan is in a class of his own. His Memory of Mountain was originally written in 1991 as a concerto for banhu and Chinese orchestra, but revised for violin and Chinese orchestra in 2016. In it, Kuan has taken three very vivid images from a visit to the Alishan Mountains in Taiwan, and translated them into equally vivid music. The first is “The Sacred Tree in the Fog” which atmospherically depicts an ancient tree, yet one which, as Kuan writes, stands “vigorous and straight” as it emerges from the swirling mountain mists. The second, “The Train in Mountain Forest” belongs to that genre of orchestral works dominated by Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No.2 which evoke the movement of a steam train. It’s certainly every bit as good as those other two classics, and with the slightly brassy sound of the Chinese stringed instruments, makes a very convincing impression of a steam train powering its way through the mountain passes. The final movement, “Celebrating a Good Harvest Year”, is very much in the mould of the political/social feel-good style beloved by so many Chinese composers. Complete with hammering percussion (although never truly explosive) and the gloriously democratic strumming of plucked instruments, it makes a properly celebratory conclusion to a very fine work, even if, for my taste, Kuan would have done well to remove the last 90 seconds or so. Through all this, Lin exerts a gentle, lyrical and beautifully gracious presence. His tone, his control and, above all, his great sensitivity, elevate this work into something which really demands a hearing and, in this version, deserves a place among the great violin concertos coming from China.

Marc Rochester

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