About this Recording
8.570614 - CHEN, Qigang: Enchantements oubliés / Er Huang / Un temps disparu (Chun-Chieh Yen, Jiemin Yan, Taiwan Philharmonic, Shao-Chia Lü)

Qigang Chen (b. 1951)
Er Huang • Enchantements oubliés • Un temps disparu


Qigang Chen was a teenager studying music at the Central Conservatory in Beijing when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, and he endured three years of ‘ideological re-education’. Despite this, he remained determined to pursue a musical career. The state reopened the Conservatory in 1977, and he underwent a further five years of study with Zhongrong Luo (b. 1924). He won a postgraduate scholarship to travel abroad in 1983, and was to be Olivier Messiaen’s last and only student from 1984–88, after the eminent composer’s retirement from the Paris Conservatoire. Messiaen described Chen’s compositions as showing ‘real inventiveness, very great talent and a total assimilation of Chinese thinking with European musical concepts.’

Chen has received commissions from the BBC, Radio France, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Stuttgart RSO, Orchestra Symphonique de Montréal and the Koussevitzky Foundation. He was composer-in-residence at the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg from 2004 to 2006, and was the musical director for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Er Huang was commissioned by Carnegie Hall, New York and received its première there in 2009. It is Chen’s second orchestral work to feature a solo pianist. The piece is based on a number of melodies from Peking operas—melodies which, for Chen, are bound up with memories of his past and his family, and which would be extremely familiar to all those who grew up as part of his generation in Peking. Now that Chinese musical life is so permeated with European and American pop culture, these traditional melodies have begun to fade from the aural landscape. For Chen, this is a cause for regret, and the presentation of these melodies is tinged with nostalgia. The incorporation of such music into his own works is a fundamental part of his compositional process, imbuing his music with a strong sense of its Chinese heritage. The work begins gently and lyrically, with a calm and sustained orchestral texture from which melodies emerge and fade, the piano taking a concertante rôle throughout. This gives way to a more energetic central section, driven once more by the piano and featuring a variety of percussion instruments—until the tension subsides and long-breathed lyricism returns, the piano rippling beneath the surface of the strings’ leading melody. The music once again builds and swells, fading away to leave the piano alone, as it was when the music began.

Enchantements oubliés, composed in 2004, was premièred in 2008 by the Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France and Alan Gilbert. It is an expansive work in a somewhat unusual form, for string orchestra, harp, piano, celesta, timpani and percussion. Recalling his inspiration for this piece, Qigang Chen explains: ‘Human beings are never content with what they have at the present time, always yearning for something they remember from their past, which seems superior in comparison. But what we can achieve through striving is not necessarily an improvement upon the original, unrefined idea. Refined beauty often shows too many traces of deliberate planning and, on close inspection, signs of deception and falseness. The most powerful beauty is of course the least processed: that is, nature. Many human creations of today overlook the heart and essence of a subject, instead [they are] intent on demonstrating new concepts and techniques. As a result, we find much on the surface, but the work might not bear closer examination. In writing this piece, I wanted to set myself free of the usual technical constraints and let the music lead me to wherever it seemed willing to go by itself—and I would simply record the journey of this natural force by notating it. Of course, the end result is never exactly the same as what we have in our minds; but I do hope that this is a truthful depiction of how I felt about the essence of beauty at the time.’

Un temps disparu is a 2002 adaptation of Reflet d’un temps disparu (1995–1996), originally written for cello and orchestra. Here the cello’s part has been recast for erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle (the bow passes between the strings), completely altering the soundworld of the composition. Un temps disparu also makes use of a well-known, ancient Chinese melody called Three Variations on the Plum Blossom, originally conceived for the guqin, a zither-like instrument. This melody is presented by Chen in harmonics, and serves as his principal theme, recurring throughout the piece. His title, Un temps disparu—a vanished time—is a reference to the precious early experiences of life: childhood, first love, first vocation, and so on, a time he sees as reflecting the spiritual harmony between humanity and nature.

Since the erhu is a much more limited instrument (both in terms of range and resonance) than the cello, this piece is extremely challenging for its soloist. Rapid passagework, extended cadenzas, harmonics, pizzicato, singing melodies and figurations which fade in and out of the orchestral texture—all this and more is required of the erhu player, in the midst of an accompanying ensemble of full strings, winds, harp and percussion. Chen’s decision to adapt the work in this way is an attempt to both explore expanded possibilities for the instrument, and lead performers away from traditional repertoire towards a new and more innovative musical approach.

Adapted from the composer’s notes by Katy Hamilton

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