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Christopher L Chaffee
American Record Guide, July 2010

Everything about this performance is commendable, from the playing to the sound engineering that brings it to vibrant, dramatic life. The final work on the disc, a 16-minute string quartet, is also extraordinary. I hope more quartets tackle it and it starts to appear on programs around the world. I look forward to hearing more from this gifted composer.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Stephen Eddins, February 2010

Chinese American composer Huang Ruo (born 1976) made an especially impressive debut with his first Naxos release, Chamber Concerto Cycle, which demonstrated a synthesis of Chinese and modernist traditions that seemed more fully integrated than that of the generation of Chinese American composers that preceded him. This disc also includes part of a cycle, the three inner movements of his Drama Theater Cycle, and his First String Quartet: The Three Tenses. The music is performed by the members of the ensemble Future In REverse (FIRE), a group the composer founded in 2005. The Theater pieces have no predetermined scenario and can be heard purely as absolute music, but they have dramatic elements that undoubtedly form a significant part of the impression they make in live performance. Drama Theater No. 3: Written on the Wind was composed for pipa player and singer Min Xiao-Fen and gives the performer opportunity to display her impressive virtuoso skills, including both extended vocal and instrumental techniques. Min Xiao-Fen has a wonderfully expressive voice and while much of the impact of the piece comes from her visceral singing and vocalizations, it’s a work with a clear dramatic arc and an exciting, accelerating momentum. Drama Theater No. 4: To the Four Corners, for five instruments, is structurally transparent, usually consisting of juxtapositions of just a few instruments at a time, but it’s timbrally fascinating, with a varied, mysterious percussion palette and creepy vocalizations by the instrumentalists. The string quartet, the first of the composer’s recorded works to feature a conventional ensemble, is an inventive and attractive essay in modernism, but it’s a reminder of how much of Huang Ruo’s individuality lies in the astonishing and imaginative timbral combinations of his pieces scored for unconventional mixed ensembles. Naxos’ sound is open, clean, and natural.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2009

Huang Ruo’s life began in 1976 when China’s Cultural Revolution was mercifully at an end and Western influences once again allowed to take hold in music education. Showing many gifts as a composer, he was allowed to travel to the States where he began studies at the Oberlin Conservatory, later moving to the Juilliard School of Music. While still a student he was receiving prestigious premiers, his style of writing drawing inspiration from classical, rock, jazz and Chinese folk. The result is an interesting fusion of total different cultures that shape the various elements of Drama Theatre. Only three of the five sections are here performed, the total score playing for around seventy-five minutes. Since I first discovered the composer a couple of years back, I have still to come to terms with his music, though the sound creation in these three disparate sections—the second one using the Chinese pipa and voice—is certainly clever. Those coming to the composer could start with the First String Quartet, atonal but well within the normal 20th century stylistic parameters. It is subtitled The Three Tenses referring to past, present and future, but stressing that in reality it is mankind that has devised time. Its three sections are therefore linked, the original score for brass instruments transcribed to its present format in 2007. It is performed by FIRE, an ensemble founded by Huang Ruo and dedicated to music of today. We must take the performance to be as the composer wanted—he was also the recording producer—and the sound is so totally realistic.

Bruce Hodges
The Juilliard Journal Online, October 2009

Chinese and Western elements fuse as the performers sing, chant, speak, act, and play additional percussion instruments—in the case of Drama II: Shifting Shades (2008), 18 beer bottles. Drama III: Written on the Wind (2007) seems like a small vocal concerto, with the ecstatic soloist Min Xiao-Fen also playing the pipa, and Drama IV: To the Four Corners (2005) uses a Western quintet, spiked throughout by sharply imaginative use of cymbals and Chinese opera gongs.

The disc closes with Huang’s String Quartet No. 1: The Three Tenses, adapted in 2007 from a previous commission by the American Brass Quintet. Listening to the taut score, I couldn’t hold back a grin, since perhaps uncharacteristically for this composer, the musicians have “nothing else to do” but play their own instruments. The quartet of engineers, including the composer, has given him enviable results working in Juilliard’s own recording studio.

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