Gang Chen & Zhanhao He
The Butterfly Lovers
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35
Gil Shaham (violin)
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Recorded in September 2004 in the Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: October 2007
CD No: CANARY CLASSICS CC04
Duration: 64 minutes
The Butterfly Lovers, a violin concerto, was first heard in the Lyceum Theatre, Shanghai, on 27 May 1959, the result of collaboration between Gang Chen (born 1935) and Zhanhao He (born 1933). It was a great success, the composers and the original soloist, Yu Lina, became famous and in demand. The booklet note threads the history of the work, the ‘before’ and ‘after’ the premiere, and the effects of the so-called “Cultural Revolution” on how the music was then perceived and the consequences for the musicians.
The story behind the concerto itself involves a girl who must pretend to be a boy in order to attend a class. The ‘boy’ who is a girl attracts the love of a fellow student; he discovers her secret. Sadly, for him, the girl is already in an arranged marriage. He dies from grief. On the wedding day, the girl throws herself into his tomb and they both emerge as butterflies. (An everyday tale!)
Musically, the score is atmospheric, tuneful, colourful, lyrical and exuberant. It’s a most attractive work, guaranteed to delight, and enjoys an excellent performance, Gil Shaham making light work of the solo part and playing with affection and commitment, backed to the hilt by the excellent Singapore Symphony. Admirers of the violin concertos of Barber and Khachaturian may find a few corresponding moments amidst the recognisably Chinese soundtrack.
Whilst The Butterfly Lovers may be unfamiliar – and a pleasing discovery, especially in this charismatic performance – Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is amongst the best-known, most-performed and oft-recorded of works. And Shaham has recorded it before. His new version is stylish and accommodating, lively and shapely (maybe too moulded at times) with plenty of dynamism and bravura and with a very positive and detailed contribution from the orchestra, Lan Shui alive to the work’s classical contours, ceremonial moments, dark-hued song and rollicking high spirits. In the ‘Canzonetta’ second movement Shaham is sultry and the finale, given without cuts, lacks nothing in energy.
Maybe though another out-of the-way concerto would have added further novelty to this release – for this account of the Tchaikovsky is not a first choice but is certainly competitive. Both works enjoy full, vivid (just a little bright) and tangible sound.