Su (Tracing Back)
Zhou Long in conversation with Andrew McGregor
Musicians from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum, London
The Immortal [BBC World Service commission: world premiere]
Piano Concerto No.2 in A
An Alpine Symphony
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 20 July, 2004
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
The first interface between east and west at this year’s Proms – one of the main themes – came in the shape of the first-ever BBC World Service commission, from Zhou Long, who in the first of this year’s Composer Portraits turned out to be an affable, if quietly spoken, 51-year-old who now lives and works in America and is (not mentioned in any of the biographical information) married to another Chinese composer, Chen Yi.
The Composer Portrait illustrated Zhou’s osmosis of Chinese instruments and western music with three works, played with consummate and commanding skill by three groups of students from the Guildhall, certainly very persuasively putting the case for Zhou’s distinctive chamber pieces. He was full of praise for the musicians, reiterating how difficult these works are, though the performances made them sound deceptively easy. The first two – Dhyana and Su (Tracking Back) – were discernibly of eastern origin, with Zhou recreating Chinese instruments on the small western chamber ensembles.
In the first, a meditation, the pianist has, at times, to pluck the instrument’s strings inside with a characteristic twang, while violin, cello, flute and clarinet share passages, subtly recreating stone chimes and the fretless zither. In Su – referring to the oldest known Chinese instrument, a fretted zither called the zheng, seemingly of which Confucius was a noted exponent and for which Zhou originally composed the piece – the flute was accompanied in Zhou’s transcription for harp, a tuning tool held against certain strings and modulated to achieve the oscillating twang we readily recognise from Chinese music.
The hunter’s dance, Five Maskers, was originally composed in 1984 for piano and arranged in 1995 for brass quintet and sounded less eastern. Indeed Zhou suggested that it was just as redolent of an American panorama in its brass quintet guise as one of north east China where Zhou had been sent to work on the land in his teens, during the “Cultural Revolution”. The opening and closing sections reminded of Shostakovich in his most military vein, or Stravinsky (one of the few 20th-century composers that could then be heard in China, Zhou said), while the middle softer, shifting-chord section is a portrait of open landscape.
As the opening item in the Prom, Zhou’s The Immortal paid homage to 20th-century Chinese artists and intellectuals, although there seemed a less direct eastern influence in the music (seemingly Zhou himself regards it as something of a departure, although the Composer Portrait did not explore The Immortal at all!) – and, although packed with distinctive timbres, it was difficult to gauge on a single hearing a cohesive structure, or whether the two main climaxes marked the disruption of the cultural revolution itself. The work ended on eerie glissandos, alternating with a seven-note motif meant to indicate the tramp of destiny. The BBC Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin approached the score with admirable commitment.
Slatkin attempted to bring the same commitment to Liszt’s Piano Concerto No.2, and the orchestra was intent on following him. Somehow the pristine Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s contribution, although note-perfect, glided above his accompanist’s attempts to dig under the notes and presented the solo part in his customary urbane but somewhat character-less and completely cosmetic way. Vivienne Westwood be-suited in a finest-silk jacket and with hair coiffured to perfection, his music-making seems to me as soulless as his gilded appearance: a triumph of fashion over substance.
That Slatkin’s relationship with the BBC Symphony Orchestra has settled, even at the point of his leaving, was reinforced by the unanimous applause from the orchestra after Strauss’s Alpine Symphony. Notwithstanding the marring by two mobile phones towards the end (one in the very closing bars), this was a superb performance, extremely well structured and gloriously played. From where I was sitting, with a good view of the off-stage brass and cowbells in the Gallery (about door 10 if you know the layout of the building), the hunting horns were actually louder than the main orchestra (that’s the Royal Albert Hall’s variable acoustic for you) – but what hunting horns. Thrilling! The wind may have lost their way just after the waterfall sequence on the way up, but quickly rejoined their compatriots, while the organ, resplendent without the hiss that used to accompany it, offered sonorous pedal points.
- Concert rebroadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 21 July at 2 p.m.
- BBC Proms 2004