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Prize-Winning Chinese Violinist Chen Yi Discusses Her D├ębut Recording

July 28, 2010

Chen Yi & Lars Hannibal Violin and Guitar Recital

OUR Recordings 6.220602

Melodies, the debut CD of Chinese-trained violinist Chen Yi, contains exclusively what used to be referred to as “salon repertoire.” From performances I’ve heard, both live and recorded, during the last few years, of music written for the violin in China, at least that of several generations ago, it seems, though not derivative, at least to bear similarities to this same salon music: It’s tonal, directly communicative, and highly accessible—although it bears unmistakably its Oriental identity. Is there any connection between these pieces and the Western salon repertoire? “Actually, the most influential piece of music affecting much of what followed, in China, was the concerto by Chen Gang and He Zhan-Hao called Butterfly Lovers,” she says. “There has been little music written for violin that bears any resemblance to the great compositions of the West such as Kreisler, Paganini, or Ysaÿe. Most of the contemporary music created is still looking for a true sense of the Chinese culture.” Chen Yi’s training seems to be entirely Chinese, unlike that of young Chinese players who came to the United States to study. It’s been my experience that students in the United States are likely nowadays to try to make their mark in works by composers like Schoenberg and Schnittke rather than in more traditional ones by composers like Kreisler, Massenet, or Grieg. Has Chen Yi noticed a difference between preferences of Chinese and American-trained players? “It’s true that the music of the old masters dominates the repertoire of young Chinese violinists. But there’s a similar library used by American-trained musicians. Once a player achieves a high level of technique and musicianship, there are many opportunities to explore the late 20th-century works.” A well-known violin dealer and aficionado of violin music, Geoffrey Fushi, once told me that he thought the future of the violin lies in China. I’ve heard stories about major (major!) conservatories here in which graduate students haven’t even heard of Heifetz. Does she think that Chinese players and Chinese listeners are for the most part steeped in violinistic tradition? “I believe you are completely correct,” she says. “Chinese players and listeners, while interested in hearing the artists of the last 40 years, still have a great love and appreciation for music by Oistrakh and Heifetz.”

Chen Yi plays a violin made by a modern Chinese maker. Lower-priced Chinese violins have flooded the market for less expensive instruments, and they represent, in many cases, a great value for the price at which they can be sold here. Yet there’s some question about higher-end instruments (Geoffrey Fushi admired what the Chinese makers have already been able to achieve, but wasn’t so certain about their current ability to break into the higher echelons.) How would Chen Yi compare the tonal characteristics and response of the Chinese instruments to those of older violins? “China’s violin-making is certainly on a path to accelerate in excellence. However, as with the United States, this may take a decade or two. Currently, the modern Chinese instruments, as is true of all modern instruments, can’t compare with the fine violins of the early 18th century Italian or even many instruments from the 19th century.”

Violin and guitar sound wonderful in combination, and, as the booklet notes state, Paganini wrote copiously for it (he was probably encouraged by the fact that one of his mistresses played the instrument—as he himself did). And Paul Stoeving, in a book written at the turn of the last century, conjectured that the last word hadn’t yet been spoken in the manner of accompanying the violin. He didn’t feel that either the dominating orchestra or the incompatible piano had spoken that last word—and remember that Beethoven, Brahms, Wieniawski, Vieuxtemps, and Saint-Saëns had written their concertos and quite a few composers had written their monumental sonatas by the time he’d rendered his opinion. Has Chen Yi ever experimented with the guitar herself? (Paganini supposedly learned a great deal about left-hand stretching from the guitar.) “No, I can’t say that I have any experience in playing the guitar,” she says. “But I did have the opportunity to play quite a bit with guitar when I was in China ... and mainly works by Paganini. I loved doing that. The pieces with greater lyricism seem easier to put together for the two instruments. There, the guitar acts more as an accompanying voice. However, the blending together of a bowed instrument that easily produces a sustained tone versus the plucking action of the guitar can be a challenge.”

The recorded sound of her CD/SACD is very reverberant. It was made in a church, but the notes suggest that the engineers have added something extra to the sound. What did the recording sound like in its original state? “The sound was very beautiful ‘live’ in the church. Although I know little of what sound engineers do, I suspect that their goal was to re-create that original quality on a disc.”

In earlier years, almost everyone played Schubert’s Ave Maria in the Wilhelmj arrangement for violin and piano that Heifetz edited and popularized, and most of them played the octaves and double-stops in the higher registers to which Wilhelmj assigned the melody the second time through. I noticed that Chen Yi didn’t play the octaves. And with the Schubert work rendered in a more straightforward manner (I’ve had listeners suggest to me that Wilhelmj’s version sounds almost distracting), its similarity in atmosphere to Bach/Gounod’s contemplative Ave Maria seems all the more striking. “Yes, the Bach/Gounod is so lovely, but the Schubert Ave Maria is equally sensual and touching,” she says. “And, for me, those octaves used by some violinists didn’t seem to blend into the serenity of the work.” Gluck’s Melody has been another favorite of violinists, especially in its arrangement by Fritz Kreisler. She says she loves the Kreisler and Milstein performances best.

Are there plans for further recordings? With guitar? With piano? With orchestra? “I hope that I may have many opportunities to record with all the accompaniments you mention: orchestra, piano—and, of course, guitar. Lars Hannibal is so dear to me, and recording again with him would be high on my wish list.”

I’ve encountered only a few recordings by Chinese violinists, playing with Chinese orchestras, in the American market. What violin CDs sell best in China? “As far as best-selling CDs in China, I’d say that the listening public prefers the music by the old masters of the violin. And in general, there’s a preference for Western performers.” Chen Yi is too young to have suffered through the Cultural Revolution. But movies like The Red Violin and Isaac Stern in China—the former a sort of fable and the latter an award-winning documentary—tell the wrenching story of what many musicians faced during that era in China. Was Chen Yi influenced, growing up as a violinist in China, by stories about the Cultural Revolution? “Yes, all Chinese are aware of the activities and consequences of the Cultural Revolution,” she says. “I’ve heard so many stories from my family and their friends from that time.”

What aspects of her early life were particularly influential in her development? “You know, I feel very fortunate to be an International Violin Competition gold medal winner. [Chen Yi won the gold medal in the 2008 China International Violin Competition, and was invited to play the Mendelssohn Concerto in the Beijing National Center for the performing arts in conjunction with Mendelssohn’s bicentennial.] My love of country, my birthplace, is intertwined with my love of the violin. I was raised to be a violinist by my mother and father, who made huge, personal sacrifices to nurture the dream of my becoming a concert artist. I will always be thankful for their efforts and commitment. And I’m much indebted to my dear friend Lars Hannibal for his love and patience in the creation and production of this recording.”

Source: Robert Maxham, Fanfare, July/August 2010


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