The Little Sisters of the Grass Land
A typical concerto of Chinese style would be the well known Yellow River Piano Concerto and the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto. Both of these the solo instrument is a western musical instrument, supported by western symphony orchestra. The Butterfly Lover Concerto probably inspires many to follow the form to compose many concertos based on a legend or a story and the concerto is very often performed without breaks between movements. Very often also is a part where the solo instrument sings with a solo cello. Later date we get Chinese concertos with Chinese orchestra supporting Chinese instrument. There are also few examples with western orchestra supporting Chinese instrument, and one of them is The Little Sisters of the Grass Land.
The Little Sisters of the Grass Land is a Pipa concerto, which will remind most people of the very famous China pipa soloist Liu De Hai （刘德海）. I have a deep impression of this concerto because I had heard a live performance of it by Liu De Hai in Singapore with Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) probably 2 decades ago.
Like many early concertos written by China composers, this piece was jointly composed by Wu Zu Qiang （吴祖强）, Wang Yan Qiao （王燕樵）and Liu De Hai. Its first performance was in 1977. The music is about two Mongolian girls protecting their sheeps in a thunder storm. The concerto comprises of 5 parts: Herding sheep in the prairie, struggling in the storm, moving in the cold darkness, caring from the Party, thousands of red flowers blossoming. The concerto has nice melodies, musical structure is simple and straight forward, a piece easy to appreciate.
I have two versions of the concerto. One version is with Liu De Hai as soloist, supported by Central Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing, and the other version is Hugo Label with Wong Ching as pipa soloist supported by Russian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mak Ka Lok. When I was a Junior College student I heard a version by Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Osawa with Liu De Hai as soloist. However I had lost the cassette of this recording. But to my memory that performance of Seiji Osawa and Liu De Hai was not very impressive for some reasons. The Hugo version being a recent recording the sound effect is much better and Wong Ching performance is good. But I still love that live performance of Liu De Hai with our local symphony orchestra SSO. That performance was conducted by Choo Hwee. I was lucky enough a friend of mine managed to record from radio boardcast that live performance and I had made that recording into CD format. Well, one cannot expect much from the sound effect but that performance in my opinion Choo Hwee and SSO had supported very well. Liu De Hai was so amasing in that performance and the pipa behaved as if was part of his body. Liu De Hai presented so much showmanship in that live performance (maybe a bit too much) and he made that performance so enjoyable in many ways. Compared to his recording I have on hand, the recording has obvious technical flaws on the soloist and also the orchestra.
I still can remember in that concert, Liu De Hai encored many more pieces. One of them was Moonlit River in Spring （春江花月夜）. The last note he played in the quiet concert hall seemed to echo so gently and forever!
Dances of the Yao Tribe
There are not much successful examples of transcribed music. “Dance of the Yao Tribe” and “Fishing Boat Song” are the few of those. “Fishing Boat Song” is originally a Chinese classical music being transcribed for solo violin. The violin version does sounds exciting with the double stops and the harmony.
“Dance of the Yao Tribe”, however, is originally a musical piece for an Western Orchestra. It was first transcribed by Peng Xiu Wen in 1954, and then in 1970s for a large scale modern Chinese Orchestra. The main theme is nice and graceful, and the whole piece has various moods, being lyrical, passionate and lively. It is a repertoire that can easily be accepted by the audience. With Peng’s arrangement, I find the music has become even more interesting than the original version. Peng has very good understanding of the characters of various Chinese instruments. And the very strong character of Chinese instruments has added vivid colour to the music.
The music “Dance of the Yao Tribe” is even more forceful and energetic when being performed by the China Broadcast Chinese Orchestra conducted by Peng Xiu Weng. Peng’s style has great dynamics, and the music structure is well presented. Under his baton, the Orchestra is very lively and moving.
I have 3 recordings of the repertoire, all conducted by Peng. One is the 1980 EMI recording, second is the 1992 Hugo recording, and the third one is the 1994 BMG recording.
From the 3 recordings of Peng and orchestra spanning over a duration of 14 years, you can hear the consistency of Peng. Take “Dance of the Yao Tribe” for example, the overall interpretation is the same for all 3 recordings. For the musical slow passage in the 92 and 94 recordings, Peng used a slightly slower tempo. Other than that, the plucking section was not as responsive as the 80 recordings. As for the quality of recording, both the later versions are better than the 80 version. Especially the Hugo recordings, the instrumentation and sound stage remains clear even at great dynamics.
There are few minute details in the 1980 recording that I like very much, not present in the 92 and 94 recordings. Firstly the tone of the Gao Hu (the 2 string instrument like Er Hu but with tones octave higher) was beautifully recorded in the 80s recording. I believe the main reason is that in those years the Gao Hu was played with the instrument being held in between the legs. As a result you get a very smooth and damped tone from the instrument. In the later years the instrument was freed from the legs and being played like any other Er Hu. The new method of playing the instrument though make things easier for the player, it does make the tone of the instrument harsher.
In the 80 recordings, the plucking instrument section was very keen and agile. The sudden decrescendo in 0’52” and the crescendo in 1’21” are very obvious and are lacking in the later recordings. Especially the sudden decrescendo in 0’52” was so well executed that it must be the tacit agreement between the conductor and the plucking section.
Finally there is this accent that was played by the Shen instrument at 2’16”. In the 92 and 94 recordings this note was executed as a quite entry into a long sustain note. Whereas in the 80 recording the slight but obvious accent the lead to the final sustain note was interesting and drew attention.
Other than the minute details, the Peng and Orchestra combination seems to be a guarantee of quality. No matter which year of recordings, it is always a satisfying experience listening to their music. And it still is.
I do own few percussion CDs, all with very good recordings. However, percussion music has great dynamic and it is not easy to finish listening all the tracks at one goal, you cannot really ‘sit back and relax’ that kind of thing. Rhythmize Heartstrings is however a CD with good recordings and fairly ‘easy’ listening.
The production of this XRCD2 disc is in Japan, but the recordings were done in China. Other than using the many types of Chinese and Western percussion instruments, the music arrangement also deployed many other musical instruments.
What I found interesting about this recording is the refreshing music composition and arrangements. The music are not so heavy and you can somehow sit back and relax enjoying the music.
In particular I like the following three tracks:
“Earth and Sunshine”: The piano and the bell created a grand soundstage, as if you are having a good bird eye view of grand scenery on a hill top. The music is about the first light of the world, the beginning of creation.
I was laughing away when listening to the track “The Hare and the Tortoise”. A simple instrumentation combination, with xylophone represent the hare motive, and the elegant English horn representing the steady tortoise. This familiar tale is very aptly represented, humorous and amusing.
In “Cavalry in Desert” the trumpet brings out the cavalry motive. The music is agile and lively. In this arrangement there are also other instruments like drum, bell etc. Recording wise not an easy task due to the high dynamic. Therefore this is a good piece to test audiophile equipment.
In this album every percussion solo instrument is accompanied by at a non-percussion instrument. In the track “War Drums in Red Cliff” we have pipa; in “A Glass of Mellow Wine” there is pan-pipes; “Earth and Sunshine” the piano; “The Hare and the Tortoise” the English horn; “Balloon Flower” the vertical flute; “Cavalry in Desert” the tumpet; “Ksana Namas” the Chinese zither; “Brown Courser” the Mongolian string instrument; “Gorgeous Rosy Clouds” the Chinese flute; and “Sing for Boundless Travelling” the female focal.
Audiophiles are unlikely to be disappointed with this recording. The only thing about the album is there are no detail description of the percussion instrument at the respective colour photos presented in the CD booklet and so I cannot figure out the name of each instrument.
Two young students from Shan Hai Musical Academy composed the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto within a year in 1958. This single movement violin concerto is familiar to many Chinese speaking community. The original score is written for a solo violin and a western orchestra. The work has been adapted for various solo instruments including erhu, pipa and piano. However, in my opinion the best version is still the original one for violin. Not surprising, the work was originally written for violin anyway.
After the premier in Shan Hai, the work became very popular in Asia. I first listened to it during my school days. Those cassettes I bought already not playable or lost. I remember listening to the version played by the famous Japanese violinist Takako Nishizaki. What I like about Nishizaki is her technical skill. Especially the fast theme after the introduction, if not well played can sound pretty clumsy.
Well, the Butterfly Lovers story is very well known in the Chinese speaking community, but probably not so in the non-Chinese speaking community. It is about a lady Zhu Ying-tai who disguised as a man and went to study. It was common in ancient China where boys were the ones given formal education. During her 3-year study she became good friend of Liang Shan-bo, and their relationship developed. When they have to part at the Eighteen-mile-Pavilion, Zhu told Liang that she wanted to marry her sister (actually was herself) to him. She told Liang to propose the marriage to her parents as soon as possible. A year later when Liang visited her, he came to realise that it was actually Zhu he was marrying, and so happy was he. Unfortunately, Zhu’s father had already arranged a marriage for her. Liang felt very sad and fell sick and died. On the day Zhu was having her reluctant marriage, she ran into her lover’s tomb and cried of her despair. Suddenly the weather turns wild and the tomb opened. Zhu threw herself into the grave. The couple then transformed into butterflies and was then happily together and would never leave each other.
‘Butterfly Lovers’ essentially is a freeform single movement violin concerto. Based on musical structure, it can be seen as 3 parts. First part is exposition, describing the lovers. Second part is development; the music evolves based on the theme of the objection of the marriage arranged by parents. The last part is the recapitulation, where the main theme reappear and describing the dead lovers transform into butterflies.
Hugo version of the ‘Butterfly Lovers’ further broke the music down into eight small sections: introduction, main theme, studying together, parting at Pavilion, opposition to an arranged marriage, meeting at the chamber, death of Liang and suicide of Zhu, transformation into butterflies and coda.
The exposition part of the music consisted of introduction, main theme, studying and parting. The music begins with strings playing at their harmonics and harp’s lightly plugging. The flute then has a long solo introduction. After the introduction the violin sings the very familiar main theme. Follow on is a lively and happy studying. The parting part is on the sad side, with cello and solo violin beautifully exchanging melodies. Many subsequent Chinese concerto composers use this same style of solo instrument and a cello exchanging musical ideas.
The development section is very dramatic and tragic, centred on the themes of opposition of the arranged marriage, the meeting at the chamber and finally the death of the loving couple. Musically this section is very demanding on the players and the conductor. In the meeting at the chamber section, again there is an exchange of melodies between the solo violin and a solo cello, but this time the mood is tragic. The exchange is quite demanding on the cello as there are large shifting of fingering position. If the cellist does not handle properly it can sounds quite awkward. The last portion of the development section where we have the death of the Liang and the suicide of the Zhu are good tests on the ability of the conductor to create a tragic and forceful climax.
Finally, in the recapitulation section, we have the gentle first theme played again by the flute. The music ends with strings playing harmonics and fading into silence.
The 3 versions of the Butterfly Lovers that I am familiar with are:
Kong Zhao-hui solo violin, The Central Philharmonic Orchestra of China, conducted by Hu Bing-zu;
Takako Nishizaki solo violin, Shanghai Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fan Chengwu;
Xue Wei solo violin, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Noorman Widjaja.
The quality of classical music recordings is affected by far more factors than say pop recordings. Normally pop recordings you only get one original singer, so most probably you will get just that recording. Classical music, however, besides recording quality (which tends to be not so important), the quality of the performance itself is affected by soloist, orchestra and conductor. You can hardly, or almost impossible to find two identical classical recordings by different performers. It is also difficult to get a recording that will suit your taste for every aspect. Therefore there is always excuses to get different versions of the same piece.
Back to the three recordings I am familiar with.
The lady Japanese soloist Nishizaki has been very closely related to the Butter Lover Concerto. Her recordings were sold for more than 3 million copies worldwide. I have been her long time supporter. Her alone there are already many versions of the Concerto. I like the CD cover of this particular recording of hers. Having performed the Concerto for so many times, she is just like passionately telling you a story she is so familiar with. Her tempo is less rigid, but musically comfortable. The conductor and the orchestra are performing well. The recording, however, is not as good as the other two versions. The sound stage and the imaging are not as good, and during the climax the different parts sound congested. Out of the three recordings, the violin is most musically recorded here, but lack of the micro details. In this recording the complete Butterfly Lover Concerto is cut into one track.
Kong Zhao-hui is at present a violinist in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Technically he is very good, and his style can be bold or gentle. His dynamic in opposition to an arranged marriage and death of Liang and suicide of Zhu is the greatest among the 3 soloists. Both the recording and the performers (soloist and orchestra) contributed to a punchy music. Track 4 at 4’38” that timpani roll really hit me deep into my heart. I have the XRCD version of this recording, and I believe this will be the most expensive Butter Lovers!
Xue Wei is currently a Professor of violin at Royal Academy of Music. This recording of his he is using a 1699 Stradivari made Kustendyke. Xue Wei’s tempo is more consistent, but at a pace that is the fastest among the three recordings. I find his used of staccato at track 2 (3’22”) refreshing. This is a recent Hugo 1997 recording, with very high recording standard. I find that the sound stage and the imaging of the orchestra of this recording is the best among the three. The Indonesia born conductor Noorman Widjaja and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra put up a very good support to the solo violin. The presentation of the music by Widjaja is very convincing, and he created very organised and powerful dynamics. The audiophile standard recording also created surprises in musical effect, like track 3 at 1’29” the pizzicato of the first violins and the percussion in track 5. The climax at track 7 was also very well executed.
Accompanied the Butterfly Lovers Concerto in Nishizaki and Zhao-hui recordings is the Yellow River Piano concerto. In Xue Wei recordings his Butterfly Lovers is accompanied by Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor.
Due to the very different style of the 3 recordings, you probably will not go wrong by collecting all three. But if you insist me to choose one, that will be a very difficult task for me. If you like recordings with great punch, you can consider Zhao-hui’s recording. If you like balance recording effect, you can consider the recording by Xue Wei. If you are Nishizaki supporter and like feminine performance, well, I guess your choice is obvious.