Gianluca Luisi: Impressions of China – Winning Works from the 2018 Huang Zi International Chinese Piano Composition Competition

review impressions of china x1 cong p35

All of the works in this programme were prize winners in the competition named in the CD title, which we’re not going to type out all over again. The competition marked the 80th anniversary of the death of Huang Zi. Born 1904–1938, and dying at 34, he was a native of Chuansha (now a part of Shanghai) and the sleeve notes call him “the most influential composer and music educator of his generation”.

To mark the anniversary, the Chuansha New Town, Shanghai, and the American Pacific Musicians Association launched the composition competition, which attracted 52 piano works from all over the world.

As the title of this CD explains, these are the winners. Italian pianist Luisi, who plays, was awarded the best performance award.

Despite most of the winners being Chinese – one of the first prize winners was European – this is not an album that sounds Chinese; the music follows Western traditions.

The CD opens with the joint first prize winner, Haohan Sun (b 1999) and a 2018 piece, The Echoes of Tianchi. This depicts the echoes between Tianchi and the peaks of the Changbai mountains, with part of the work expressing the unpredictable weather of Tianchi. It’s a good example of the music on the album. China’s a big place with lots of open space and variation. The music across the CD is spacious and often unpredictable, but it’s always enervating.

Emile Naoumoff (b 1962) follows, his 2018 composition Celestial Parade describing his experiences in Shanghai. From the sound, he mainly hung out at shidaiqu clubs – a Chinese folk/American jazz mix that originated in Shanghai in the 1920s. Towards the end he perhaps went for a walk among trees as leaves fell, as the music gets more pastoral.

Shuying Li (b 1989) is next, with a 2010 piece, Five. Shuying has been praised as “a real talent here waiting to emerge” by The Seattle Times, say the sleeve notes. She studied in Michigan and is now on the Research Faculty at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. This is a more impressionistic piece: “five has multiple meanings in the composition – different pentatonic scales encounter each other and are mingled” say the sleeve notes.

It’s very watery, either rushing or dripping; rest assured, the music on here is mainstream and won’t frighten anyone who doesn’t like modern music. A lot of intelligence has gone into it, but not much in the way of experimentation.
Pengfei YU (b 1988) contributes The Field of My Hometown (2017), based on the changes of wind, rain, clouds and birds in different seasons in the fields of South China, and expressing the charm of China’s land in music. In one way it’s perhaps the least coherent piece on the CD, although it conveys an air of weather that’s a bit like England, constantly changing and with wind, rain and sun all on the same day.

Bo Liu (b 1986) entered Gasuo (2018), translated as “sound of singing, music, melody” from the Dong minority in Guizhou. It is as that description suggests.

The closing piece comes from Zhiliang Zhang (b 1987), whose 2017 Qiao Ling Liu Dan (The Beauty of Six) looks at female roles in traditional Chinese opera. These are divided into nine categories such as blue clothes, flowers, vivacious and unmarried women, warriors and old women. He selects six and runs them together in one piece.
Zhiliang is a teacher in the Electronic Music Department at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and his work is the most experimental, though in sections we could hear jazz/Gershwin.

All in all, an interesting album of fresh-sounding piano music.

This is out now on Naxos, 8.579070.

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