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Chinese Dreams
Lydia Maria Bader (piano)
rec. 2019, Studio b-sharp, Berlin

As is often the case, a small opportunity offered and taken can lead to greater things. Lydia Maria Bader chance contact with a Chinese agency via the internet brought her to China and her own fascination with other cultures and love of the country kept her coming back. For the last ten years she has returned to give concerts in far flung parts of the country and has seen how the concert culture has grown. In the notes (in German and English) she describes her first concerts in places that had not experienced western recitals, “when visitors still sat in the hall swinging light sticks” and goes on to tell how nowadays introductions are given on how to behave in a concert.

In this vibrant recital, original works and folk-song arrangements by Chinese composers and pianists are intermingled with Chinoiserie, those works by western composers influenced by their experience of China or its culture. It makes for a widely varied programme, in which both cultures mix extremely well. Cross-mixing is evident in the extravagant opening item which sets the stage for this colourful adventure. Wang Luobin, “the father of Chinese folk-song”, met a beautiful Tibetan girl on one of his many journeys and was inspired to write words to a folk tune from the Qinghai province. This has proved popular to this day and pianist Zhang Zhao was in turn inspired to produce this grand transcription, Lisztian in its sweeping virtuosity and occasionally reminiscent of Ravel in his Jeux d'eau. There is a similar mood to Sunflower and indeed the first section of this disc sparkles with exuberance and vitality. The Mermaid ballet suite was written in 1959 for the tenth anniversary of the Republic of China. The first two items, Coral Dance and Dance of the Waterweeds have rippling water effects, the coral evidently sitting in more turbulent waters than the languid ripples stroking the waterweeds. The Straw-hat Dance is an energetic romp with semi-quaver motifs played against a percussive accompaniment.

Abram Chasins was an American pianist/composer with over one hundred works to his credit though it is his 3 Chinese Pieces which have (just about) remained in the repertoire, having been played by the likes of Benno Moiseiwitsch and Shura Cherkassky, particularly the sparkling scherzo Rush hour in Hong Kong. It is the first of these pieces, A Shanghai Tragedy, which with its tolling bells introduces the first truly sombre note to the proceedings. Though the tempo increases as the piece continues, the mood is no less bleak and the work ends in sorrow once more. The set continues with the playful teasing of Flirtation in a Chinese Garden, which only uses the white notes of the piano and the breathless helter-skelter of Rush hour in Hong Kong. Cyril Scott's languidly impressionistic Lotus Land needs no introduction though the similarly impressionist set, Alt China by German composer Walter Niemann deserves more familiarity. Niemann admitted that he had never been to China; in the preface to these “dream poems” he says, “they are Chinese only in so far as they reproduce the delicate, exotic, fairy-tale atmosphere of the Far East”. They are intended as musical representations of experiences Niemann had in a dream where he was accompanied by the French poet Paul Claudel, author of La Connaissance de l'Est (Knowing the East). Despite the titles, the influences are more of French Impressionism than the East, though the evocations are imaginative and picturesque: the fragile chiming of the Pagoda Bells, trilling of birdsong over an elegiac melody in the Chinese Nightingale or the portrait of a young child in the little Li-Li-Tse. The Holy Barque intersperses gently rocking waves with chorale like chords, while the excitement and vague exoticisms of the frenetic opening of A Garden fete soon relax into much more Western harmonies, echoing the Debussy Préludes and with a bouncing rhythm which could as easily be a Central European folk dance. Heard in isolation, perhaps this could sound more oriental; in the present company not so much, although it doesn't feel out of place.

The recital closes with three works by Wang Jianzhong, a Shanghai born composer/pianist and educator. He studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of music, an institution that welcomed him as a professor in the 1980s. He was prolific at a time when music not based on traditional Chinese folk-tunes or revolutionary songs was forbidden and these are three examples. The beautiful Silver clouds chasing the moon sounds like a folk-song but was actually composed by the Chinese-born and Parisian-trained composer Ren Guang. The last two are based on actual folk-songs and Jianzhong brings across the flowing cascades and calmer waters of the Liuyang River in a masterful transcription. Glowing Red Morningstar Lilies opens with an expressive passage that occasionally tickled my ear with faint echoes of Ravel's Mother Goose, before he recasts the folksong as a lively dance. The work closes in gently reflective mood.

I had not come across the pianist Lydia Maria Bader before. I see that she has recorded a couple of early recital discs as well as an album of Scandinavian music (Nielsen, Sibelius, Grieg, Dubra, Pärt and Tüür) for the Gutringa label (not reviewed). She certainly made an impression on me with this disc. The pianism is excellent with plenty of thrilling fireworks in these exciting transcriptions or the manic presto of Chasins' Rush hour and her layering of voices is marvellous. Her mastery of dynamic contrasts is wonderful as is the delicacy of her touch – just listen to the opening of the first of Niemann's Alt China or her plaintive trills in the Chinese Nightingale. This is an album I will listen to again and again and is likely to be on my record of the year list.

Rob Challinor

Wang LUOBIN (1913-1996) arr. Zhang ZHAO (b.1964)
In that place wholly faraway (1939) [5:13]
Du MINGXIN (b.1928) arr. Wu ZUQIANG (b.1927)
Ballet-Suite “the Mermaid” (1959) [7:39]
Wang YU SHI (1928-2009) arr. Lin ERYAO (b.1939)
Sunflower [2:21]
Abram CHASINS (1903-1987)
3 Chinese Pieces (1926) [7:35]
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Lotus Land Op.47 No.1 (1905) [4:04]
arr. Chu WANGHUA (b.1941)
Sichuan folksong – Kangding love song [2:16]
Yunnan folksong – Quiz song [1:17]
Walter NIEMANN (1876-1953)
Alt-China – 5 Tone-poems Op.62 (1919) [20:06]
Ren GUANG (1900-1941) arr. Wang JIANZHONG (1933-2016)
Silver clouds chasing the moon (1935) [3:22]
Hunan folksong – Liuyang River [3:49]
Shanxi folksong – Glowing Red Morningstar Lilies [4:41]

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