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The Piano In China / Tianshu Wang

Dun / Zhao / Green / Wang
Release Date: 08/09/2011 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1289  
Composer:  Alexander TcherepninHe LutingLi YinghaiTan Dun,   ... 
Performer:  Tianshu Wang
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

THE PIANO IN CHINA Tianshu Wang (pn) ALBANY 1289 (64:55)

A. TCHEREPNIN Concert Studies. HE LUTING Buffalo Boy’s Flute. LI YINGHAI Music at Sunset. TAN DUN 8 Memories in Watercolor. CHU WANGHUA The Jasmine Flowers. Read more class="COMPOSER12">ZHANG ZHAO Pi Huang—Moments in Beijing Opera. GREEN Study on the Life Cycle of the Phoenix

In my interview with her, Tianshu Wang’s enthusiasm for the music she plays on this CD was very evident; it is no less so here. I think that she has succeeded, as she clearly wished to do, in creating a program of music that would be unfamiliar to Western listeners, yet that they would find engaging. That does not mean that this program requires no effort from the listener. Intelligent, involved listening will ensure that The Piano in China has the impact intended by Wang—who is, by the way, a first-rate pianist.

Alexander Tcherepnin’s five concert studies are titled “Shadow Play,” “The Lute,” “Homage to China,” “Punch and Judy,” and “Chant.” The titles are useful points of departure, but do not exclude the listener’s imagination. It is fascinating to hear Chinese melodies wedded to a Russian style of piano writing. “Shadow Play” is bright and busy, with enough rhythmic irregularities to hold one’s attention. Its athletic final page does not intimidate Wang! In “The Lute,” Tcherepnin asks for both the soft and sustaining pedals to be used throughout, to mimic the timbre of the Chinese guqin. The results are a hazy and gentle impressionism, and the pianist responds to its poetry with sensitivity. “Homage to China” returns to brightness. Volleys of rapidly repeated notes and unexpected harmonies add to this piece’s interest. “Punch and Judy” is unexpectedly lyrical, and even charming; maybe their antics in China are less violent than elsewhere. “Chant” has a “Great Gate of Kiev”-like solemnity, and there is even a suggestion of temple bells. These pieces are not etudes in the strict sense of presenting the pianist with a particular technical challenge. One might call them etudes in feeling and atmosphere.

He Luting’s pioneering Buffalo Boy’s Flute opens and closes with the piano imitating two flutes, played canonically. In the very brief middle section, one can imagine two shepherd boys merrily capering. This piece is simplicity itself, but its innocence is likeable, and not simply naive. Lang Lang plays this on his Dragon Songs CD. While Tianshu Wang’s performance emphasizes the music’s naturalness, Lang Lang’s is much more interpreted and “dressed up.” Frankly, I think Wang’s is better.

With Li Yinghai’s picturesque Music at Sunset (1975, rev. 1996), we move to music of greater sophistication. This is a transcription of a traditional piece for the pipa, although the composer clothes it in impressionistic colors. At its opening and closing, it has more than a whiff of Debussy and, in its middle section, a harmonic richness that suggests the salon.

Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolor are, as the title suggests, quick sketches. Half are based on folk melodies, and the other half are wholly original. The longest one, the opening “Missing Moon,” lasts all of 2:30. (Wang tells me that Tan Dun gave the individual pieces English titles, and that when she performs them in China, she translates them into Chinese. What the composer meant by “Blue Nun,” the fourth “memory,” is not quite clear.) This music feels very spontaneous and free, and while Wang respects its informality, she also is able to create palpable impressions within a short time span.

The melody of The Jasmine Flowers will be known to anyone who knows Turandot ; Puccini used the same melody in the first act, when the boys’ chorus sings about the stork on the Eastern Mountains. Composer Chu Wanghua enwreathes this beautiful melody with lacy figurations and evocative, sometimes unexpected harmonies. Color trumps form, but the writing is so pianistic that no one will complain, I imagine.

Pi Huang , like Buffalo Boy’s Flute , won a Chinese contest for works having a national flavor, but it is far more recent, dating from 2005. This is the most sophisticated work on this CD by a native Chinese composer, and it speaks well for the future of Chinese piano music. Zhang Zhao uses a variety of compositional techniques to depict the impressions one would receive during a traditional Beijing Opera production. The CD closes with Jonathan Green’s Study on the Life Cycle of the Phoenix . This work was composed for Wang in 2000, and is receiving its first recording here. In the composer’s own words, this work “takes a Western approach to musical chinoiserie,” as it evokes the “imagery of the mythical phoenix thrashing in the flames as it fights for survival, being consumed in the inferno, and rising peacefully from the ashes as it is reborn.” This is quite a workout for Wang, but one can sense that she relishes the work’s drama and philosophical associations.

Tianshu Wang’s piano is captured with honest, unexceptional engineering; it doesn’t assist her, nor does it really hinder her. Most of the booklet note is her work as well. She is a very capable, hard-working pianist who succeeds in conveying the color and atmosphere behind the “Chinese spirit.” Her technique is strong, but her desire to communicate is even stronger. This is an admirable CD, and it will reward anyone who chooses to explore it. I look forward to hearing more from this pianist!

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
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Works on This Recording

Concert Etudes (5) for Piano, Op. 52 by Alexander Tcherepnin
Performer:  Tianshu Wang (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934-1936; China 
Buffalo Boy's Flute by He Luting
Performer:  Tianshu Wang (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: China 
Music at Sunset by Li Yinghai
Performer:  Tianshu Wang (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: China 
Eight Memories in Watercolor, for piano, Op. 1 by Tan Dun
Performer:  Tianshu Wang (Piano)
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 1978; China 
The Jasmine Flowers by Chu Wanghua
Performer:  Tianshu Wang (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: China 
Pi Huang - Moments in Beijing Opera by Zhang Zhao
Performer:  Tianshu Wang (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: China 
Study on the Life Cycle of the Phoenix by Jonathan Green
Performer:  Tianshu Wang (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 

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