Rather than an attempt to depict a reality-based musical view of China, pianist Jenny Lin's program seems designed to show how fantasy tends to mix with reality in many Western composers' attempts to evoke the flavor of a far-off, exotic land that held strong fascination. Of course, this fascination with the Orient in general began centuries ago with Europeans' first awareness of music, styles, food, and art, an awareness that grew to spawn periodic fads and influence fashions. Rulers stocked their palaces with treasures brought from the far east; Puccini and Gilbert and Sullivan celebrated this attention and many other composers included or tried to include elements of what they thought wasRead more oriental "flavor" in some of their works. Most often, however, the result was as much like real Chinese as the Moo Goo Gai Pan from your local takeout.
Lin has chosen a varied and eminently colorful program that includes many unfamiliar works--but no one can complain that this isn't one of the more engaging, intriguing, original, and entertaining piano recordings to come along in the past year. And pianist Lin is a wonderful musician, in total technical command of this long (nearly 80 minutes) and formidable program. And (as long as we're on the subject) she imbues the music with an enticing mix of variously scented spices that truly bring out the unique, if rarely authentic flavors of each composer's creation. As you might expect the pentatonic scale and its permutations are a ubiquitous presence, a feature that may have seemed merely curious a century ago but now comes off as more than a little cartoonish and hackneyed. But it still can be made charming and even pretty, as in Martinu's The Fifth Day of the Fifth Moon, or sensuous, as in the surprising, Debussyian Lotus Land by Cyril Scott. Morton Gould's Pieces of China is a kind of Pictures at an Exhibition for the Kodak age. The idiom is a hybrid of borrowings from popular music styles (especially jazz) and the Western composer's "do-it-yourself Chinese music fake book"--but it's an absolutely charming condensation of cliché and postcard images, from "The Great Wall" to "Puppets" to "Slow Dance-Lotus".
Other highlights include Anton Arensky's Étude sur un theme chinois Op. 25 No. 3, a great encore piece that whirls and swirls its way through four exciting minutes; Percy Grainger's Beautiful Fresh Flower, loaded to overflowing with open fourths and pentatonic melodies; John Adams' predictably busy-but-going-nowhere evocation of China Gates; and Albert Ketèlby's In a Chinese Temple Garden, complete with gong. The prize for most authentic goes to Alexander Tcherepnin's Five ('Chinese') Concert Études Op. 52. The composer not only lived in the Far East for nearly three years in the 1930s, but he married a young Chinese concert pianist, Lee Hsien-Ming, for whom the etudes were written. Inventive and artful in their use of real Chinese melodies and impressions of Chinese instruments, these pieces have been virtually ignored by pianists but, especially as Lin presents them, they also deserve serious attention by others. Lin's fluid legatos, skillfully calibrated dynamics, and polished rapid fingering technique really shine here.
In the "works that have Chinese names but nothing to do with China" category are Abram Chasins' Rush Hour in Hong Kong, which from the sound of it just as well could be San Francisco or London or any other city; Ferruccio Busoni's Turandots Frauengemach, which is based on the folk tale Turandot, but whose theme is the very English tune "Greensleeves" which, according to the excellent liner notes, Busoni mistakenly thought was Chinese; and Rossini's Petite Polka chinoise, in which amusingly you can hear lots of Chopin but virtually no chinoiserie. Lin plays this with knowing humor and understated flair.
Lin's Steinway benefits from an acoustic that complements and naturally captures its full range and character, from robust lows to ringing highs. This is a release that every piano enthusiast should own. Those looking for a quirky but unfailingly delightful visit to China will enjoy it too. [7/1/2000]
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com Read less