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ClassicsOnline Home » CHEN, Jie: Chinese Piano Favourites
While the piano is a western invention, it has come to occupy a special position in Chinese musical life. The earliest Chinese piano pieces date from the first half of the twentieth century; many remain popular in the concert hall today. This latest release in Naxos' Chinese Classics focuses on piano works from the Republican period (1911-1949), featuring Jie Chen, Bronze Medal Winner of the 2005 Santander Piano Competition. The music draws on well-known ancient melodies or folk-tunes, as reflected in the titles.
By David Denton
Chinese Piano Favourites
The piano is a western invention, evolving over several centuries, developing into its modern form about 150 years ago. It is natural therefore that piano music started in the West first. The earliest Chinese piano pieces appeared in the early twentieth century, for example Zhao Yuan-ren's Hua Ba Ban and the Waves of Xiang River, He Lu-ding's works in the 1930s and 1940s such as The Shepherd's Piccolo and Lullaby, Ding Shan-de's Journey in the Spring suite, and Jiang Wen-ya's piano ballad Full moon in Xunyang. During this period there were not so many Chinese composers, but the quality of their work was always high. Indeed, many of their compositions remain popular in the concert hall today.
Between 1949 and the end of the 1970s, a great number of Chinese piano works were written. The government, however, exercised great control, restricting composition largely to transcriptions of well-known ancient melodies or folk-tunes. 'Original' compositions revolved around the political ideology of the time. Pure creative music was not encouraged. Most piano works were written in the European 'Romantic' style, while based on the Chinese pentatonic scale. This might point to monotony and over-uniformity in musical writing. Nevertheless, there were composers who adopted traditional, popular idioms and managed to create music that was melodious, fresh-sounding and well-received. The works on this album date from the Republican period in Chinese history (1911-1949). Worth noting also is that since the 1980s, many new composers have appeared, writing polytonal and atonal music, creating new voices in Chinese music.
 Tang Bi-guang (arr. Wang Jian-zhong): Liu Yang River
Liu Yang River comes from the 1950s opera Submitting the Grain Tax by Tang Bi-guang. The melody and lyrics are extremely simple. Wang Jian-zhong wrote this piano transcription in 1972, skillfully retaining Hunanese folk characteristics from the original version.
Wang Jian-zhong was born in 1933 and graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory in 1958. He became professor and subsequently the Conservatory's Vice President. Major piano works include Five Yunnan Folksongs, A Hundred Birds Paying Respect to the Phoenix, and Plum Blossom Melody.
 Traditional (arr. Wang Jian-zhong): A Hundred Birds Paying Respect to the Phoenix
A Hundred Birds Paying Respect to the Phoenix was originally for suona (the Chinese oboe), and was popular in Shandong, Anhui, Henan and Hebei provinces. It was transcribed for piano in 1973.
 Ren Guang (arr. Wang Jian-zhong): Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon
Written by Ren Guang in 1935, Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon was originally for Chinese instrumental ensemble. The piano transcription was written in 1975. The pure harmonies and rich texture help keep the original folk character. At the same time, the transcription makes full use of the piano's expressive power. This is an illustrative piece of contemporary Chinese music.
 Traditional (arr. Li Ying-hai): Flute and Drum at Sunset
Flute and Drum at Sunset is an ancient melody for the pipa (Chinese lute). In the 1920s it was named Happy Spring Evening when transcribed for the Jiangnan Ensemble. The piano version was written in 1975, and is less fragmented than ancient works, emphasizing logical musical development instead. The pentatonic scale gives the music its traditional sound.
Li Ying-hai (1927-2007) was born in Sichuan, and in 1948 graduated in composition from Nanjing National Conservatory. He moved to Shanghai, and from 1949 taught at the Shanghai Conservatory and China Conservatory, of which he subsequently became Vice President. He wrote instrumental works and songs, and also books on music theory.
 Lu Wen-cheng (arr. Chen Pei-xun): Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake
Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake was a Guangdong piece originally written by Lu Wen-cheng. Chen Pei-xun transcribed it for piano in 1975 and it became one of his most popular works. The harmonies are wholly pentatonic, painting a charming Chinese picture of the moonlit lake scene. The melody alternates between the left and right hands, which are independent but harmonious. With frequent arpeggios, broken chords and crystal-clear musical ornaments, the composer successfully conjures up the moon's shining reflection in the calm lake.
Chen Pei-xun (b. 1921) was born in Hong Kong. In 1939 he entered the Shanghai National Music School. In 1949 Chen became a professor in the Composition Department of the Central Conservatory. In the 1980s he taught in Hong Kong Baptist College (now Hong Kong Baptist University).
 Traditional (arr. Wang Jian-zhong): Glowing Red Morningstar Lilies
Glowing Red Morningstar Lilies is the first of the arranger's Four Shanbei Folk Songs (1973). While the piece originates from a folk melody, the taut structure and clear musical theme make it a perfect piece of virtuoso piano writing, one with rich national flavour.
 Hua Yan-jun (arr. Chu Wang-hua): The Second Spring Bathed in Moonlight
The Second Spring Bathed in Moonlight,written by Wuxi native Hua Yan-jun (1893-1950), is one of the most representative pieces for erhu (Chinese two-stringed fiddle) in Chinese traditional music. In 1972 Chu Wang-hua transcribed it for piano, making the structure tighter and emphasizing the piece's specific musical characteristics. The powerful main theme is balanced by a very rich texture. The polyphony of the piano version makes an interesting comparison to the more monophonic erhu version.
Chu Wang-hua was born in 1941. After graduating in 1963 from the Central Conservatory, he started his teaching career there, becoming in 1969 one of the team of six arrangers of the new piano concerto version of the Yellow River Cantata (originally written in 1939 by Xian Xing-hai). Chu's many original and transcribed compositions include The Sky of the Liberation Area, Days of Bouncing Back, Liu Yang River, The Red Star is Shining, and Soldiers of the Southern Sea, which is included in this album. He now lives in Australia.
 Zhu Jian-er (arr. Chu Wang-hua): Celebrating Our New Life
In the 1950s the composer Zhu Jian-er wrote an orchestral piece for The Great Land Reform, a documentary made by The China News Film Studio. A few years later, in 1964, Chu Wang-hua transcribed a section from Zhu's film music into this short piano piece. To imitate the glissandi of the banhu (a Chinese bowed two-stringed instrument), the composer adopted chromatic ornaments. The scintillating and lively texture enjoys a free rein.
- Ding Shan-de: Children's Suite
I. Going to the Suburb
II. Butterfly Chasing
III. Jumping Rope
IV. Hide and Seek
V. Holiday Dance
Children's Suite was composed in 1953. Through clear and concise means, the composer brings to life the pastimes and activities of Chinese children. The five movements show scenes from daily life. Though the suite is tinged with Chinese characteristics, the themes are all original and not taken from traditional melodies.
Ding Shan-de (1911-1995) was born in Kunshan in Jiangsu Province, near Suzhou, on the western border of Shanghai. In 1928 he entered the piano department of the Shanghai National Conservatory. In 1947 Ding went to Paris to study composition at the Conservatoire, returning to China in 1949. After that he taught in the Shanghai Conservatory, becoming Vice President and Dean of the Composition Department. His most well-known work is the large-scale Long March Symphony.
 Wang Li-san: On the Paintings of Kaii Higashiyama – IV. The Sound of Big Waves
"The Sound of Big Waves" dates from 1979, and is the fourth movement of the composer's piano suite On the Paintings of Kaii Higashiyama. Wang was inspired by the contemporary Japanese painter Higashiyama's other-worldly style. While the paintings depict only the sea, the suite boasts even richer imagination. The composer used techniques otherwise not common to Western piano writing, such as blocks of notes and polytonality, importing sounds of Japan to the music. The piece transcends beyond pure emotional expression to a philosophical realm.
Wang Li-san was born in Wuhan in 1933. In 1951 he entered the Shanghai Conservatory to study composition. In 1959 he started to work in the Jie Mu Xi He Jiang Art Group, moving to the Harbin Arts School (Heilongjiang province) in 1963. He was appointed Dean of the Arts School of Harbin Normal University in the late 1980s.
 Traditional (arr. Li Ying-hai): Farewell
Farewell was originally written for qin (Chinese zither) in the Tang dynasty, set to Wang Wei's poem Seeing a friend off to An Xi. The places Yang Guan and Wei Cheng are mentioned in the poem, so the piece is also referred to as Song of Yang Guan or Song of Wei Cheng. Seeing off one friend's has thus been associated with Yang Guan. The work is structured in tripartite form, with a basic tune varied three times. To date, there are more than thirty versions of Farewell. The most frequently performed version for qin comes from Introduction to the Performance of Qin, compiled by Zhang He near the end of the Qing Dynasty.
Li Ying-hai's piano transcription (1978) is based on the same version. In this transcription, the melodiousness of the original tune is kept. Li uses grace notes to imitate the special sounds of the qin. Structurally the third section has a more varied development. After reaching the climax, the music ends abruptly with a contrasting coda.
 Traditional (arr. Chu Wang-hua): Soldiers of the Southern Sea
Soldiers of the Southern Sea is a short piano piece written in the 1970s. The motifs derive from the fishing song Dou Song of the Haifeng region in Guangdong province. The music is vivid and in typical 'Southern Sea' style. Structured in three sections, the work first sets the scene in the Southern Sea, then details the emergence of the enemy and the brave combat, and finally celebrates the victory of the battle.
English version by Frankie Cheung
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CHEN, Jie: Chinese Piano Favourites