SHENG:  China Dreams.  Two Poems from the Sung Dynasty. Nanking! Nanking!  A Threnody for Orchestra and Pipa.
Juliana Gondek, soprano; Zhang Qiang, pipa; Hong Kong Philharmonic Orch/Samuel Wong, cond.
NAXOS 8.555866 (B) (DDD) TT:  65:44

Bright Sheng has won more medals and prizes than Seabiscuit, as pianist, conductor, and composer. His artistic mission, apparently, is to explain China to the West, and in largely Western terms. I first encountered him as the orchestrator of the late Bernstein work Arias and Barcarolles, and he did a swell job. I've since heard his original work. It's not particularly difficult, although it is well-made. It's also eminently forgettable. Listening to China Dreams, for example, made me appreciate more greatly the Respighi "Roman" tone poems. Apparently, it's harder to do this sort of piece than I had thought. There are nice, even poetic, moments, including a lovely string solo at the end of the third movement and a virtuosically-orchestrated finale, but ultimately very little sticks. A half hour later, you're hungry again. The Two Poems sets wonderful texts (Sheng translated). The first—about a woman lamenting her unhappy marriage, strikes me mainly as, I hate to say it, a modernist exercise in chinoiserie. Stravinsky did this shtick in the Teens. Sheng's second setting, however—this time of a poem of a woman mourning the death of her husband —is another kettle of soup: very vivid, very attentive to the poem's subtle shifts of meaning. The orchestration is brilliant, somewhat in the manner of the early Seventies, but it doesn't meander or gibber. It shows a strong dramatic line throughout. It seems appropriate to the text. This is more a scena than a tune you can hum, and the setting lays out the complex psychology of the poem and skillfully avoids the musical clichés of Great Emotion.

We save the big work for last. Nanking! Nanking! is Sheng's death-song to the city brutally overrun by the Japanese in 1937—his equivalent of Martinu's Memorial to Lidice or Strauss's Metamorphosen. By now, we take the spectacular orchestration for granted. The piece opens with foreboding (dominated by low strings), then bursts into a "barbaric" section depicting the pillaging soldiers (brass and percussion). The savagery dies down, and we get a cadenza-like section from the pipa, a Chinese stringed instrument requiring great virtuosity. Sheng creates an extremely difficult part besides. The pipa's meditations are alternately shattered and lightly accompanied by the orchestra until the conclusion, which becomes increasingly marked by strings and harp, a kind of meditation on the horror and a search for transcendence. It's a conventional plan, baldly recited like this. But the plan alone doesn't convey the considerable power of the music itself, which ends with a brutal surprise. At more than 26 minutes, it could easily fall apart, but Sheng keeps the listener's attention. The odd surface (to my Western ears) of Chinese music this time expresses something deeper within the composer than a travelogue. If Sheng has a better work in his catalogue, I don't know it. Wong and his orchestra do well, but not exceptionally well by the composer. Granted, China Dreams is a piece of Grofé fluff updated, but one can easily imagine a performance that makes you forget that. In general, Wong and the Hong Kong players give a truthful, rather than a generous performance. Gondek and Qiang make music out of the fiendish parts Sheng has given them. One doesn't think of the technique, but the complexity of expression. Both communicate like nobody's business. Gondek once or twice steps over the line from genuine emotion to All-Purpose Opera Emotion, but it probably amounts to a grand total of a second in thirteen minutes worth of music. I listen to Qiang, however, with my jaw on the floor—virtuosity and poetry are that tightly woven. The sound quality isn't noteworthy, neither remarkably good nor mud-fence ugly, and I imagine that Sheng's percussion-laden scores and wide dynamic contrasts must have given the engineers fits. The good news is that nothing went really wrong.

S.G.S. (July 2003)