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Impressions of China
Haohan SUN (b.1999)
The Echoes of Tianchi [8:43]
Emile NAOUMOFF (b.1962)
Celestial Parade [6:53]
Shuying LI (b.1989)
Five [6:11]
Pengfei YU (b.1988)
The Field of my Hometown [13:25]
Bo LIU (b.1986)
Gasuo [14:45]
Zhiliang ZHANG (b.1987)
Qiao Ling Liu Dan (“The Beauty of Six Operatic Female Roles” [12:47]
Gianluca Luisi (piano)
rec. 2019, Gianluca Luisi Concert Hall, Osimo, Italy
NAXOS 8.579070 [63:06]

Naxos periodically releases on CD recitals given by those who have won various international instrumental competitions; they label them their “Laureate Series”. Here, though, we have something which stands somewhat apart from the “Laureate” concept; a recital comprising the two works which jointly won the 2018 Huang Zi International Chinese Piano Composition Competition, along with the two which shared second prize and the two which shared third. And if all that competition success was not a heady enough mix, the recital is performed by the winner of the Best Performer Award. (I am intrigued to notice that said Best Performer, Gianluca Luisi, has his own concert hall back in his native Italy, where these recordings were made.)

There is plenty of hyperbole in the unattributed booklet notes from which certain interesting things emerge. We learn, for example, that 52 works were submitted to the competition, which was held in Pudong, Shanghai, to mark the 80th anniversary of the death of the composer Huang Zi, and that the works explored themes of the unpredictability of the Chinese landscape and weather, elements of Chinese music, and Chinese theatrical aesthetics. It would seem that the vast majority of those 52 works (which, we read, were submitted “from all over the world”), came from Chinese composers, and of the six top prize-winners, five were Chinese.

Ironically, first prize went to Bulgarian-born, French composer, one-time student of Nadia Boulanger and already well into his late 50s with a solid international reputation as a composer, Emile Naoumoff. His Celestial Parade does stand out as a mature, fully-developed work, which explores the full range of the piano’s sonorities and seems absolutely comfortable in its own skin. It places great demands on the pianist, but all are clearly designed to reflect the idea behind the music, and not merely show-off devices for competition judges to admire. As for the idea behind the work, the booklet tells us it simply “describes the wonderful and first-hand experience of the composer while he was in Shanghai”, and it does not take much imagination to recognise in this piece, which opens with a glorious self-indulgent flourish, and then proceeds through jazz-infused harmonies in a glittering pianistic carnival, with various hints at Chinese-type melodies, a depiction of a city which often seems to be bursting at the seams with life.

Sharing first prize with Naoumoff was a native Chinese composer, Zhiliang Zhang, whose Qiao Ling Liu Dan takes six of the traditional female roles found in Sichuanese opera, and explores their characteristics in a continuous thread of pianistic effects. It seems a somewhat rambling and incoherent piece, wandering across so many stylistic vistas that one feels in danger of ending up quite punch-drunk. Perhaps it needs some commentary to help the listener understand what these effects are trying to communicate, but as a showpiece for a virtuoso and flexible pianist (which Luisi most certainly is) it is highly impressive.

Joint second-prize-winners, Haohan Sun and Bo Liu, have produced widely contrasting works. Sun’s is strong, often austere, and strides widely across the entire length of the keyboard in its vivid depiction of the scenery and unpredictable weather of the Changbai Mountains, while Liu’s Gasuo celebrates the diversity of the Dong minority people and often seems to imitate the sound of the traditional instrument, the Lusheng. Coincidentally, the two works which shared third prize both celebrated the pentatonic scale. Shuying Li explores its full potential in an idiomatically pianistic manner in her Five, while the Pengfei Yu’s four-movement The Field of My Hometown is far less accessible than its highly-descriptive movement titles imply, although it does live up to the booklet’s description of it as “expressing the modern aesthetic recalling of Chinese folk art”.

Gianluca Luisi steers a firm course through these works, none of which, perhaps surprisingly for a composition competition, shows any inclination to experimental or even non-traditional piano playing techniques – there are just a couple of moments when the keyboard is abandoned in favour of a gentle finger strumming over the strings – and he conveys much of what it seems the various composers wanted to say.

Marc Rochester

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