Sheng Orchestral Works
It may sound premature to speak of a retrospective for a 47-year old composer, to say nothing of separating his work into three artistic periods, but this orchestral collection by the Chinese-born American composer Bright Sheng does indeed fall into three distinct phases. As the first of his generation of post-Cultural Revolution composers to gain attention in the West, Sheng’s work in the mid-’80s quickly earned him the moniker ‘The Chinese Bartók’ by supporters and detractors alike. His 1988 breathrough piece H’un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-1976 rather extended that model, offering powerful evocations of the Cultural Revolution that would do Shostakovich proud.
The most recent work here, Nanking! Nanking!, a sonic representation of the 1937 massacre in the ancient Chinese city during the Japanese occupation, makes for a strange theme for a millennial commission, most of which either celebrated the past or looked vaguely toward an uncertain future. For Sheng, however, Nanking! Nanking! was a return to the sheer raw power of H’un. Though billed as a threnody rather than a concerto, both the piece and its performance here frame pipa player Zhang Qiang’s violent plucking to its best advantage, with superb engineering that captures subtleties which would normally be lost in a concert hall.
Two Poems from the Sung Dynasty, the earliest work on this collection, is the one most firmly in the Bartókian modernist mould. China Dreams, an orchestral suite assembled over time from three different orchestral commissions, reveals a much more lyrical side of the composer, as well as a marked increase in orchestrational craft. The Hong Kong Philharmonic shows much greater buoyance and flexibility in the piece than the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, which first recorded China Dreams for BIS. Whether it’s due to the orchestra’s affinity for the music or to the composer’s presence during the recording process, the results are superb.