CD Review: Xingye Li’s ‘Masterpieces’ Challenges Guitarist and Listeners

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Xingye Li
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This Chinese-born player is a new name to me, but he has certainly chosen an ambitious selection of pieces for this recital. Tan Dun is perhaps best known for his concerto from 1996, which Sharon Isbin recorded. Here, his Seven Desires has both Chinese and flamenco influences. The music is tricky and at times difficult to assimilate—like many new works, it can take a little getting used to. Edison Denisov’s Sonata from 1981 is in three movements, the first being an arpeggio-driven “Toccata,” which to be honest, got a little tiring, going on as it did non-stop for almost five minutes without contrast in style or mood. The “Berceuse” is more lyrical but, by his own admission, not a lullaby, which rather makes me question the reason for the title. The lyricism is chromatic and bordering on atonal, and again left me a little unaffected .The finale, “Souvenir D’Espagne” begins with, in the composer’s own words, “several clichés with ironic parodies of the Hispanicisms typical of the guitar.” Unfortunately the “parodies” were largely lost on me.

Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal, his only solo guitar work, is fondly remembered by many from Julian Bream’s pioneering recording of this major work, so any subsequent versions have a lot to live up to. The good news is that Li does an excellent job on what is still, after 50 years, a real guitaristic work-out.


Rodrigo’s 1961 Invocacion y Danza is still one of the pillars of modern guitar music, both extremely virtuosic and full of complex performance techniques. There have been numerous versions over the years, so it might be difficult for a collector of guitar CDs not to have multiple versions already, but this one is absolutely fine and shows Li for the top player he is.

Finally, Alberto Ginastera’s four–movement Sonata from 1976 is another large-scale work full of considerable technical difficulties. Its starting point is the folk music of his native Argentina—the opening esordio is influenced by the Quecha Indians from the country’s northwest. The scherzo that follows is, by contrast, an almost violent 6/8 race around the fingerboard and extremely difficult to play successfully, but Li manages it confidently. The third movement is a canto, and although it has its lyrical moments, it is a restless, uneasy lyricism, and not the relaxing song one might expect here. The finale begins with relentless strumming patterns that, with its mixture of 6/8, 3/4, 7/8, and 5/8, is extremely virtuosic and shows how developed a player Li is.

While I might question the use of the word “masterpiece” in relation to one or two of these works, they are without question a huge handful, and only attainable by very fine players, which Li proves to be.

—Chris Dumigan.