China Philharmonic

Cello Concerto in B minor, Op.104
The Song from the Earth [UK premiere]
The Miraculous Mandarin – Suite

Jian Wang (cello)

Luwa Ke (soprano)

China Philharmonic Orchestra
Long Yu

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 March, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

A pity that, apart from Chinese and critics, the larger number of a far from full Barbican seemed to be tourists in London during the Easter exodus. This meant an often-indifferent response that did not reflect the prowess of the orchestra in question. Established in its present form only five years ago, the China Philharmonic already demonstrates a corporate musicianship of international standing – and if, in this programme, it was not at its consistent best, the potential is there in abundance.

It helped to have Jian Wang for a Dvořák Concerto which, if not of the most subtle, was lively and unmannered. Keeping the initial Allegro on a tight rein, Long Yu paid due attention to the tonal sleights of hand that make this one of Dvořák’s most arresting structures, though the contrast in emphasis when Wang took up the second theme suggested a less than full meeting of minds. No such equivocation in the Adagio – its wistful warmth and surges of intensity raptly conveyed, and with a final emotional ‘dissolve’ which was most affecting. If the main theme of the finale seemed a little short-winded, Wang’s thoughtful phrasing of the subsidiary ideas left no doubt as to his identity with the concerto – with the ruminative coda drawing the music’s expressive essence to its fateful close.

The time is past when modern Chinese classical music meant such ‘committee’ works as the ‘Yellow River ‘or ‘Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto. This weekend also saw the London premiere of a fine string quartet by Bright Sheng, and this concert brought a recent song-cycle by his exact contemporary Xiaogang Ye. Whether in English or German, there is no mistaking the allusion made by the title. Indeed, it was a fascination for the provenance of the verse that Hans Bethge ‘translated’ and Mahler subsequently setthat led to a more authentic rendering of the T’ang-dynasty poems as had been used in movements one, three, two and six, respectively, of “Das Lied von der Erde”. What Ye has created is not a ‘song-symphony’ as such, but rather a thematic song-cycle following the lineage of Ravel or Szymanowski.

Both are evident in a lush orchestral sound that tends to the excessive; the exception being the second song – a lithe scherzo, replete with metallic percussion, that evokes its pavilion setting with imaginative resource. Otherwise, a combination of ponderous tempos and enervating instrumentation gave the other songs a uniformity at odds with the expressive aim of the texts – and which robbed the cycle of any cumulative intensity. Yet Luwa Ke managed the vocal writing, which draws on the European song and Chinese opera traditions, with absolute security: the absence of transliterations made it difficult always to gauge points of emphasis, but the quality of her voice was never in doubt.

Although the Chinese Mandarin put forward in the lurid scenario which inspired Bartók’s pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin might be thought ‘incorrect’ from today’s perspective, the music is tailor-made for a show of virtuosity. And Yu approached it as such, sacrificing the finer points of balance – and, in the girl’s dance in front of the Mandarin, any underlying expressive nuance – for a driving account of the concert suite that avoided being superficial through the sheer commitment of the playing.

Time still for a “little desert”, as Yu described it, in the form of a dance for strings entitled, I think, The Will of Night: its graceful glissandos and twee pentatonicisms much more in keeping with what used to be understood as ‘Chinese classical’, but which, as this concert confirmed, now seems no more than a calling-card in the brave new musical world being embraced by the China Philharmonic Orchestra.

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