#32 CHINASONG • Chinese folk songs and popular music arranged by YI-WEN JIANG
THE SHANGHAI QUARTET: Weigang Li, violin • Yi-Wen Jiang, violin • Honggang Li, viola • Nicholas Tzavaras, cello • with Eugenia Zukerman, flute • DE 3308
Contents: Miao Mountain Morning • Five Yunnan Folk Songs • Reflections of the Moon in the Er-Quan Spring • Caprice • Shepherd’s Song • Harvest Celebration • Liuyang River • Young Soldier’s Joy • Two Pieces from Temple Fair • Yao Dance • Pictures from Bashu (6 Sichuan Folk Songs) • Two Shandong Folk Songs • Red Flowers in Bloom (24 tracks)
“vividly detailed, diverse and beautiful works… the Five Yunnan Songs…are brought vibrantly into three dimensions in this lush, rich arrangement… Reflections of the Moon in the Er-Quan Spring… is well-loved enough to have been referred to as the Chinese version of Barber’s Adagio… sensitively arranged collection of songs…” The Strad
Of the Shanghai Quartet’s nine beautiful and varied albums for Delos, their most distinctive — and best selling to date — is “ChinaSong.” The enchanting arrangements of favorite Chinese folk songs were created by Yi-Wen Jiang, the Quartet’s second violinist; a labor of love on his part, and some years in the process. Everywhere the Quartet plays a group of these song arrangements, they are an instant hit with audiences.
Yi-Wen Jiang writes:
“Some years ago I developed the idea of arranging a few sets of Chinese folk songs along with popular music by various Chinese composers. I grew up with many of these pieces, and played some as solo works for violin and piano during the difficult days of the Cultural Revolution.
“These works are short and diverse, some based upon traditional folk songs, and others composed recently. Although their musical style is not structured or sophisticated, the pieces seem to be accessible and enjoyable for a general audience. The themes speak to the individual listener because they are expressive, direct and easily absorbed and understood. I asked myself: “Why not arrange them for string quartet, which is the form I love the most? That way I can play beautiful Chinese music again and also bring it to a wider audience with my group, the Shanghai Quartet.”
“I sifted through many songs and began arranging them for string quartet or small ensemble. Some of the folk songs are usually performed by a singer, violin, or piano; or by Chinese traditional instruments such as the Pipa, Erhu or Suona (a double-reed wind instrument, almost like an oboe), and Bamboo flute. But I didn’t want simply to imitate traditional Chinese instruments when we play those pieces. I tried to make the harmony and the structure closer to traditional western styles. The idea is that Chinese music can be played on western instruments and thus can be enjoyed internationally.”
Formed in Shanghai 25 years ago, this versatile ensemble is celebrated for the players’ passionate musicality, impressive technique, and multicultural innovations. The Shanghai Quartet’s elegant style of melding the delicacy of Eastern music with the emotional breadth of Western repertoire allows them to traverse the genres, and offer unique insights into everything they play.
Delos began its recording series with the Shanghai Quartet in 1993, with a winning disc featuring the Mendelssohn Quartet No. 7 and the Grieg Quartet Op. 27 (DE 3153). The Shanghai was fairly new on the scene back then, but you would never know it from this account of one of their concerts: “An hour before concert time the line stretched outside. After the doors opened every seat was taken. Standing room was filled…Later there was an announcement [about] avoiding this problem in the future. Palmer Stadium came to mind as a solution… And what was this all about? Madonna? Guns N’ Roses? Would you believe the Shanghai String Quartet…?” The New Jersey Star Ledger
“Spirit Murmur” (DE 3162)(“Gamelan in Sosi Style”“Bagatelle No. 1, Op. 30 No. 1” “Bagatelle No. 2, Op. 30 No. 2”) came next, featuring four string quartets of Alan Hovhaness and introducing Zhou Long to Delos listeners. The program has captured the hearts of those who respond to the combination of East and West, reflections on Nature, and quiet spirituality. As the Washington Post summed it up: “One of the most distinctive and attractive string quartet recordings in recent memory… dreamy, exotic music of Alan Hovhaness… [and] ‘Song of the Ch’in’ by Zhou long, in which the quartet evokes sounds and melodies of traditional Chinese instruments… a lovely experience from beginning to end.”
In “The Flowing Stream”(A Horseherd’s Mountain Song”) (“Driving the Mule Team”)(DE 3233) we hear more of Zhou Long’s original music and also his arrangements of Chinese traditional music: folk songs; the hauntin
g Poems from Tang; and Soul, an original composition that combines a Chinese traditional instrument, the pipa, with string quartet. A broad palette of Chinese music, crisscrossing the boundaries between high and low culture, Western ideals and Chinese sentiment. Two further albums of Zhou Long’s music have since appeared on Delos. “Tales from the Cave” (DE 3335), also includes Five Elements, Valley Stream and Heng (Eternity), all performed on traditional Chinese instruments by the Music from China Ensemble. Zhou Long’s newest release “Spirit of Chimes” (DE 3397) is described elsewhere on this site.
The Shanghai’s recording of the Ravel Quartet in F (DE 3223), with seldom-heard Bridge Quartet in E Minor and Noveletten) brought a fresh approach to Ravel, summed up by the Washington Post: “The Shanghai distilled the Asian-inspired sounds from Ravel’s Quartet in F. This ability to highlight these underlying ‘exotic’ influences was nothing artificial, but seemed more like a natural part of an ensemble of such virtuosity and style.”
“Music for a Sunday Morning” (DE 3173) was not just a lifestyle suggestion, but also subtle homage to flutist Eugenia Zukerman (joining the Shanghai on this recording) for her fine arts reporting on the CBS TV “Sunday Morning” show. The varied program has something for everyone, from Bach and Mozart to Ginastera and Amy Beach. The album also offers delightful Young People’s Notes, written by Shirley Fleming.
Mozart’s last two Quartets (DE 3192), Brahms Quartet #2 and Quintet (with Arnold Steinhardt, DE 3223) and Beethoven Quartets from Op. 59 (DE 3320) all offer impressive performances of core repertoire. Gramophone commented that the Shanghai’s “rich, warm, beautifully blended sound is a real asset in Brahms … if you value gorgeous, opulent tone in Brahms, it may be the version for you.” The Shanghai’s Mozart was put on the “short list” of preferred versions by various commentators, and a Beethoven review headline read “Beethoven with Attitude.” On the occasion of recording the Beethoven, the Shanghai had this to say: “We saved Beethoven for our 20th anniversary. We believe that music of this stature is the kind of challenge and statement we wish to make on this special occasion. Chinese do not play music simply for entertainment but to elicit profound thoughts in the listener, whether music auditor, poet or scholar. Such music is what traditional Chinese might play upon the death of a beloved, the birth of a child, upon leaving for war, or returning to peace.”