It has often been said that Western composers came into contact with percussion and percussion music at the time of the Paris World Fair at the very end of the 19th Century. From this time, so called exotic instruments made their way into Western music thanks to composers such as Stravinsky, Milhaud (who may well have composed the first percussion concerto of all times), Bartók, Varèse, Jolivet and Messiaen, to name but a few. Since then there have been many works for percussion, often drawing their musical inspiration from the East and the Far East. This is the common feature shared by the four pieces recorded here.
Hovhaness’s interest in Eastern cultures is well-known and many of his numerous works, both small and large, have been inspired by Japan or Bali. His xylophone concerto Fantasy on Japanese Wood Prints Op.211 composed in 1965 is one such work. Its title rather suggests a suite of short colourful sketches capped by a lively dance section. Most Hovhaness hallmarks are there, most prominently, modally inflected themes. This colourful work has already been recorded (at least) once before (played by Robert van Sice who nevertheless chose to perform it on marimba rather than on xylophone [Etcetera KTC 1085]).
Thea Musgrave has composed a number of superb and highly inventive concertos, most of which have been recorded at one time or another. However, her Journey through a Japanese Landscape for marimba and wind ensemble, completed in 1994 and first performed in Cheltenham that year by Evelyn Glennie and the RNCM Wind Ensemble conducted by Timothy Reynish, is new to the catalogue. It is based on a series of Japanese haikai representing the seasons of the year. (A pity, though, that these short poems are not printed in the otherwise excellent notes.) As might be expected, this is another fine example of Musgrave’s imaginative and colourful writing. This piece is a worthy successor to her earlier concertos and a most welcome addition to her discography.
Chen Yi and Zhou Long, husband and wife incidentally, are both Chinese-born composers in their late forties. Both, too, are highly representative of Chinese composers whose early composing efforts were cut short by the so-called Cultural Revolution that – ironically enough – aimed first and foremost at suppressing rather than highlighting the pre-Communist Chinese cultural past. Thus, when allowed to resume their musical studies, they – and other Chinese composers – turned to their country’s musical and cultural past, as it were, as a reaction and an exorcism as well. Their music includes a number of features of early Chinese music in an attempt at reconciling Eastern thinking with Western musical techniques. This is quite evident in Chen’s substantial Percussion Concerto of 1998 written for and first performed by Evelyn Glennie with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lan Shui. The first movement draws on a tune from the traditional Beijing opera Farewell to my Concubine whereas the second movement is a realisation of a poem Prelude to Water Tune in which the percussion player also declaims the words imitating "the exaggerated reciting style of Beijing opera". The last movement Speedy Wind is a lively, rhythmically alert piece of music including a cadenza for percussion leading into the work’s fiery conclusion. As a whole, the piece is quite impressive and quite attractive, though it may be a bit too long. It is nevertheless quite rewarding.
The cultural world of the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) apparently means much to Zhou and has had a lasting influence on his music. His subtly scored Two Poems from Tang was selected for the 1997 Masterprize and was recorded that year by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding. His Out of Tang Court recorded here is scored for a Tang ensemble (i.e. gu-zheng [a 21-string Chinese zither], pi-pa [a 4-string lute] and er-hu [a 2-string vertical fiddle]) and orchestra. Its is a subtly and delicately piece of music of great beauty. No doubt, the real gem in this most interesting release.
Performances here could not be bettered and are superbly recorded. A rather unusual release, maybe, but a most enjoyable and interesting one opening many new musical vistas. Not for Glennie’s fans only. (Hubert Culot)