Reviews: Recent Albums by Xuefei Yang, Yuri Liberzon, and Alex Park
BY BLAIR JACKSON /Editor, Classical Guitar
Xuefei Yang Sketches of China (Decca)
On of the first interviews I did for Classical Guitar magazine after becoming its editor more than six years ago was with the great Xuefei Yang, in Oklahoma City, in the American Southwest, of all places; it was my first Guitar Foundation of America convention. She was a wonderful interview subject—bright, engaging, articulate—and one of the things that really struck me about our conversation was that she was adamant about wanting to explore her Chinese musical heritage more. At the time, she had recorded her own arrangement of the Chinese folk song “Fisherman’s Song by Moonlight” and I loved how she managed to bring the sound of the traditional Chinese guzheng (a 13-string Chinese zither) onto the classical guitar. When I last saw her perform, in San Francisco in 2019, nearly half her program consisted of Chinese pieces and I found it utterly captivating. Now she has made a truly wonderful two-CD set devoted completely to both ancient and modern Chinese works, recorded in Beijing. Most are solo guitar pieces, but a handful find her accompanied effectively by an orchestra or a solitary guzheng or xiao (bamboo flute).
Disc 1 is the more traditional-sounding of the two and it aligns more with my personal taste. As I mentioned in reviewing a disc of music by Vietnamese guitarist An Tran a while back, I have only a passing knowledge of most East Asian music forms, but I have always been very attracted to many of them, especially Japanese and Chinese folk music and Indonesian gamelan. So an album like this, which artfully combines classical guitar with folk music, is right in my wheelhouse (or “up my alley” if you prefer that cliche). There is a spare beauty to so much of this music; as Westerners, it is natural that we associate this sort of music with decorative Chinese art—scenes of waterfalls cascading over rocks, rippling streams, delicate trees dotting steep hillsides. But as Xuefei says in her helpful notes, these aren’t just evocative natural landscapes brought magnificently to life, though they are that. They are also portraits of human emotions, where natural elements are sometimes intended as metaphors for human feelings, which is why they land with such power. Xuefei’s ability to mimic certain traditional Chinese instruments on her guitar is uncanny—the quick slides up and down the fretboard; the seemingly endless variations of tremolo (so different than Barrios!); the distinctive, crisp, individuated plucking of certain notes; the at times brash and explosive strumming; the glistening rushes of notes that sound like they’re pouring out of her instrument; the creative employment of harmonics. This is a seriously virtuosic performance that takes “classical guitar” in many exciting new directions. It’s also great to hear her in duet with a guzheng (played by Sha Yuan) on a pair of pieces: It sounds like such a natural pairing all of a sudden.
Disc 2 introduces more “modern” elements to the sound—get ready for a handful of pieces (or parts of pieces) where the plucking turns to abrasive snapping, rhythms become abrupt and irregular, and the serene beauty of country landscapes gives way to what sound more like gritty, overcrowded city scenes; at least that’s how I hear it. Even at its most abstract, however, there are still wisps of tradition blowing through the music, but in a sometimes startling new context, as in Tan Dun’s Seven Desires—one of just three pieces I was already familiar with (via versions by Xingye Li and, more recently, Sharon Isbin on her excellent Affinity album). Anothert piece I knew is the gorgeous closer on Disc 2, The Moon Represents My Heart a piece by pop composer Quinxi Weng that Roland Dyens magnificently arranged for guitar. It is the perfect capper to Xuefei Yang’s truly remarkable musical achievement.
Disc 1: A Lovely Rose (arr. Renchang Fu); Flower Drum (Wei Qu); A Moonlit Night on the Spring River (Trad.); Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon (Guang Ren); Hujia (Trad. arr. Weiliang Zhang); White Snow in the Spring Sunlight (Trad.); Yao Dance (Tiehsan Lu & Yuan Mao); Everlasting Longing (Trad. arr. Sha Yuan); Three Variations on Plum Blossoms (Trad.); Fisherman’s Song By Moonlight (Trad. arr. by Xuefei Yang & Sha Yuan)
Disc 2: Sword Dance (Changjun Shu); Camel Bells Along the Silk Road (Yong Ning); Shun Chang (Yi Chjen); Three Folk Songs (WenChung Chou, arr. Kenneth Kwan and Xuefei Yang); Dreams of Gulangyu Island (Rendung Fu); Seven Desires (Dan Tun); The Moon Represents My Heart (Qingxi Weng, Arr. Roland Dyens)
Not surprisingly, we have Andres Segovia to thank for popularizing the notion of playing J.S. Bach on the guitar. In London in May of 1928, the Maestro recorded the “Fugue” from the Sonata for ViolinNo. 1 (BWV 1001), a deliciously complex Baroque masterpiece, for the first time. That no doubt thrilled and challenged burgeoning guitarists who heard it on disc, but it wasn’t until Segovia premiered his epic guitar version of the already-famous “Chaconne” movement from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 (BWV 1004) in Paris on June 4, 1935—and subsequently recorded it—that mastering Bach repertoire became practically de rigeur for classical guitarists, really up to the present day. Segovia kept some Bach in his concert repertoire on and off until his death, and though the aforementioned “Fugue” and “Chaconne” were pieces he returned to and rerecorded over the decades, Segovia actually seemed to favor Bach’s Cello Suites over the Violin Sonatas and Partitas. And in any case, he also eschewed playing complete multi-movement works for the most part. That “Fugue” and “Chaconne” are still often played in isolation; they’re among Bach’s “Greatest Hits” by now.
Nevertheless, those Violin Sonatas and Partitas (BWV 1001-1005, alternating) have been played in abundance by guitarists in this post-Segovia era, and more often than not as complete works. Among the contemporary heavy hitters who have tackled the three Sonatas are Eliot Fisk, Paul Galbraith, Ben Verdery, Manuel Barrueco, Nicholas Goluses, and Kazuhito Yamashita; quite a group. The latest is the fine Russia-born Israeli guitarist (now based in Northern California) Yuri Liberzon, whose 3 Violin Sonatas album has been in heavy rotation in my CD player for the last few months. Liberzon studied with Manuel Barrueco at the Peabody Conservatory in Maryland—and with Verdery at Yale—and here uses Barrueco’s transcriptions as a jumping-off point for his interpretations of the Sonatas. Like Barrueco, too, Liberzon plays a wonderful- sounding guitar made by the late luthier Robert Ruck (43 years apart!).
It goes without saying that the pieces themselves are all magnificent. Each of the three sonatas has four movements, but the Fuga being placed in the second position is the only element shared by all three. As you might expect, the fugues are marvelously constructed pieces that seem to be simultaneously building and unfolding, and they require intense concentration from the guitarist to keep their spiraling momentum from unraveling. Fortunately, Liberzon is more than up to the task. Segovia’s choice notwithstanding (never argue with the Maestro!), I particularly adore the expansive Fuga from the Sonata in C Major (1005). I also love the way all three sonatas start with pensive, lyrical, “slow” movements—adagios in 1001 and 1005, and grave in 1003; it’s where Bach’s deeply spiritual side finds its strongest expression. Other engrossing moments include the lovely little Siciliana in 1001 that leads to that sonata’s delightful, burbling Presto conclusion; the beautifully sad Largo in 1005; and the riveting and relentless Allegro that concludes 1003—one of my absolute favorite Bach movements.
Throughout, Liberzon proves to be a sturdy, skilled, and confident navigator through this hour-plus of intricate and emotional music. Kudos, too, to Liberzon’s co-producer and engineer, Nahuel Bronzini for such a clear and present recording.
Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001: I. Adagio, II. Fuga-Allegro, III. Siciliana, IV. Presto; Sonata in A minor, BWV 1003: I. Grave, II. Fuga, III. Andante, IV. Allegro; Sonata in C major, BWV 1005: I. Adagio, II. Fuga, III. Largo, IV. Allegro assai
This album, which came out in the fall of 2019, showcases the impressive talents of Southern California-based Alex Park, whose higher guitar education CV includes studying with the likes of Christopher Parkening, Andrew York, and Scott Tennant—not bad! For his debut recording, he has chosen what folks like to call a “mixed recital,” largely consisting of crowd-pleasing staples of the repertoire, including such war-horses as Recuerdos a la Alhambra, Leyenda, Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios, and Villa-Lobos’ Prelude No. 2. And though looking at the list you might be tempted to say, “I really don’t need to hear another version of _______,” young Park does play them all very well, and of course they are all great pieces; famous for a reason! (And I never tire of the Villa-Lobos).
My favorites, though, are the ones I haven’t heard as much: Spatter the Dew, a frolicking Irish tune; Ponce’s album-opening “Gigue,” which lets Park flash his speed, precision, and dexterity to nice effect; a courtly Allemande by Dowland, where the guitarist uses contrasting right hand “voices” to bring the dance to life; and an alternately majestic and circuitous Handel Sarabande from one of his keyboard works; fantastic! But really, there are no weak tracks here, the recording is superb, the playing is uniformly steady and mellifluous, and in the end it all falls together like a Grand Tour of styles, from the Renaissance to the 20th Century, all in just 37 minutes. If I have one complaint, it’s that the CD package that was sent to me contains no information about the pieces, the composers, or the artist himself. Still, the quality of the performances make me eager to hear more from Park.
Suite in A Minor: Gigue (Manuel Ponce); Recuerdos de la Alhambra (Francisco Tárrega); Spatter the Dew (trad. Irish, arr. David Russell); Leyenda (Isaac Albéniz); Prelude No. 2 (Heitor Villa-Lobos); The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (Claude Debussy); Allemande: My Lady Hunssdon’s Puffe (John Dowland); Conde Claros (Luis de Narváez); Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios (Agustín Barrios); Sarabande and Variations (G.F. Handel)