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Doundou Tchil
Classical Iconoclast, November 2010

Ma Sicong (馬思聰) (1912–1987) (Ma Sitkong) is a composer everyone should know, Chinese or not, because his music can be exquisitely beautiful. The latest recording, Ma Sicong Music for Violin and Piano Vol 2, has been top of my listening list for many months. It’s heart-breakingly poignant and intimate. This is the disc I turn to most, despite all others, because it’s so emotionally potent. That’s why it’s been difficult for me to write about it because I can’t do it justice.

Ma Sicong is an icon in China. He was more prolific and less ideological than Xian Xinghai (冼星海) (Chang Singhoi) who died young. Ma was extremely influential as he was a virtuoso violinist and charismatic teacher. He had integrity and dignity, despite persecution. His story has meaning for all, Chinese or not.

Western classical music was well established in China even during the late 19th century. Educated, modern-thinking Chinese were open-minded and well aware of European trends. Studying in Europe was the norm for anyone progressive who could afford it (and for some who were poor and held on). There were full conservatories in Beijing and Shanghai, but Ma’s older brother lived in France, so 11 year old Ma, already a prodigy violinist, went to Paris.

Ma’s music is firmly in the western classical tradition, though he was naturally immersed in Chinese sensibilities. Indeed, that’s why learning Ma’s music for violin and piano is a key to his wider repertoire. The violin is not unlike Chinese instruments like the erhu. Traditional Chinese music is a lot like chamber music, played solo or in very small ensembles. The scholarly ideal of refinement was to play an instrument and make music, much like writing poetry or painting, to be enjoyed in intimate, private surroundings. Folk music, too was often individual, like solo flautists and string players. Most people in the West think of Chinese music as garish and strident, like Beijing opera, but the reality is quite different.

Hsiao-mei Ku is the violinist on the disc I love so much. She, too, was a child prodigy, from the same province of Guangdong. There are precious photos of her playing a child-size violin, and Ma beaming with appreciation. The photos are precious because the Red Guard movement changed so much. All music, even non-political Chinese music, was considered degenerate. Ma was the top person in Chinese music education, protected by Zhou Enlai (who also studied in Paris), but even he was humiliated in the Cultural Revolution. Ma and his immediate family made a dramatic escape, first to Hong Kong and then to the United States, where he died in exile. (His brother was punished and his French sister-in-law committed suicide). Hsiao-mei Ku, being much younger, didn’t have the same connections. Her violins were taken away. She was forced to clean pig stables and undergo other horrors but eventually made it out, where she now has tenure at Duke University.

This background does have a bearing, because Ku’s sensitivity to Ma’s music is intense, and she learned from the composer himself. Her work is perhaps definitive. Her playing is exquisite, complete control over the very long, keening legato. Yet there’s energy, wildly animated strength and resilience. Most impressive of all, she understands the soul of this music, its context and sense of yearning. What comes over strongly is Ma’s love of China, so deep it’s embedded in his very nature. This love for music, for art and for humanity transcends the traumas of his life and makes it so inspirational. Ku is supported well by Ning Lu, the pianist.

If anything, this second volume of Ma’s music for violin and piano is even better than the first. In this second disc, there’s no need to play up the “Chinese” character of Ma’s music. It stands on its own terms, very much in the western mainstream but original and distinctive.

Spring Dance (1953) starts with an assertive exposition that zig zags confidently and is strikingly modern. It opens out to a quieter central section marked by a lithe, lovely solo violin, before reprising the assertive theme. Simple, but extremely distinctive. Similarly, Rondo no 2 (1950) has the purity of folk music, even though these pieces are definitely sophisticated art music. Ma has absorbed the essence of traditional music and can create something highly individual. Think Bartók. Melody (1952) is almost wholly western, the piano part providing firm support for a violin melody that develops inventively.

Ma’s Violin Sonata No 3, written in 1984 towards the end of his life, is particularly moving. The piano part is luscious, romantic without being sentimental. The violin starts delicately but moves on to a crescendo of great vigour. If this sonata expresses nostalgia, it’s also imbued with confidence. The allegro vivace movement is refreshing.

The Gaoshan Suite (1973) is more specifically Chinese in intention, with its references to customs like Calling Back the Spirits. But don’t expect pastiche. Ma is far too good. This music could easily stand on its own in any western programme. The “ghosts” here have universal meaning. More “Chinese” in the sense of pentatonic harmony is Ballade (1952) . The violin sings a melody that for me evokes powerful feelings of nostalgia and intimacy. Maybe other people won’t have the same connotations or memories, but anyone who’s moved by RVW’s The Lark Ascending will be moved by this too, though it’s more of a miniature.

The backbones of this disc are the three Rondos. Rondo no 3 and 4 (1983) are separated from Rondo no 2 by thirty years in which Ma Sicong’s life underwent extreme upheaval. Yet Rondo no 2 starts cheerfully, a skittish melody that seems carefree, even when Ma pushes the violin into angular rhythms. Basic cells repeat, but overall the mood is forward-thinking and positive. Ku and Lu separate the two late Rondos with Ballade, emphasizing the passage of time, like a brief Rückblick. Thus Rondo no 4 feels like an explosion. The piano part almost bursting with determined expressivity. It’s intense and dark, yet the violin, which perhaps “speaks” for Ma himself, dominates, defiant with an almost demonic strong sense of purpose Whatever Ma experienced in life, he wasn’t going to be intimidated or robbed of the life force music gave him.

Please consider buying this disc. It’s not expensive (it’s Naxos) but if it gives you as much therapeutic sustenance as it’s given me, it’s value is beyond money. Please see my other posts on Ma Sicong, Chinese music, unusual instruments etc. This is a genuinely multicultural site.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, October 2010

The first volume in this series nicely sets out questions of biography and musical orientation. Briefly, Ma Sicong studied in France—violin at the Nancy Conservatoire, and possibly in Paris as well, though no one seems sure. He returned later for composition lessons before returning to China, where he’d been born in 1912, to form a symphony orchestra. He became an administrator and in 1949 found himself in Hong Kong. He was invited back to China, to Beijing, and life as a performer and composer. He suffered mightily during the Cultural Revolution, escaping in 1967 to America, where he lived for another twenty years.

His music utilises Chinese folk song married to the formal Western techniques he’d already imbibed in France. The music is songful, pleasant, and at its best when it does what Robert Russell Bennett does in his music, which is to inject some charge into things, to vitalise indigenous or near folk melodies and transform them. At his least inspiring there is a same-ness and repetitious formula to some of the music which can prove less than engrossing heard in bulk. I concede that this may not be the same thing if one heard these gentle and concise pieces one at a time.

Spring Dance (1953) is certainly inspiriting and a light-hearted mountain song. The Rondo No.2 is lightly infused with Chinese elements; this is one of the works here that seems predicated strongly on a Western model that tends to limit the potential of folk material...but cannily set out, as one would expect of the executant-composer so well versed in such things. The quality of warmth is one that needs to be addressed; the 1952 Melody has an incontestable dose of it, and it’s one of his best features, something of a gift. The most recent opus is the Third Violin Sonata of 1984. This romantic, nostalgic and wholly tonal piece is cast in two movements and could have been written at any time in the last seventy years. Its finale has a bit in common with Spring Dance. Indeed dance underlies much of the music, from the vivacity of the earliest work, Dance of the Autumn Harvest, from 1944 (but not published until 1953) to some of the movements from the Gaoshan Suite. In terms of sonority this has some of the most quixotic writing, with wind-through-the-reed evocations, and an especially attractive penultimate movement that is the suite’s emotional heartland. But as the Rondo of 1983 shows, his style hadn’t changed very much in thirty years, though we do hear superimposed some blues-tinged elements as well. Finely played and recorded...

Robert Maxham
Fanfare, September 2010

Unlike Naxos’s first volume of works for violin and piano by Ma Sicong (Naxos 8.570600) the second includes pieces with abstract titles (who can forget the Chinese officials asking the violinist in The Red Violin what titles like Sonata No. 1 mean?). And Ma wrote some of these works after he had escaped from the grip of the Cultural Revolution to settle in the United States—according to the violinist’s own booklet notes, late in the 1960s.

The Spring Dance, from 1953, bustles with Kreisler’s energy, whatever its ethnic background, and the Second Rondo, from 1950, shares some of its intoxicating spirits. Ku plays these two short pieces with sharp technical command, and brings the Rondo to a whirlwind conclusion. Ma’s Melody, from 1952, provides an opportunity for the violinist to display another side of her expressive personality, and if it sounds more diffuse than warmly insinuating, that may be in part due to a cooler temperature. In fact, Ku’s rich and commanding tone on the G string could meet any expressive challenge. The Dance of the Autumn Harvest, the earliest piece on the program (from 1944), begins with a burst of autumn sunshine, but settles into more melancholy reflections before regaining its earlier momentum in a splashy reminiscence of folk-fiddling double-stops. As in the pieces that precede it on the program, Ku seems more decisive in the faster sections than in the slower ones.

Two more extended works—the two-movement Third Sonata, from 1984, and the Gaoshan Suite, from 1973—constitute the program’s center of gravity as well as its geographical center. The sonata’s opening Moderato provides a sort of relaxed, sensitive meditation, the harmonies of which extend further from the tonal centers to which the earlier works firmly adhered. The second movement brings an infectious, Kreislerian dance-like drive familiar from Ma’s earlier works, but it, too wanders into hazier territory. Again, Ku seems to have a deeper affinity for dance than for song, for the work’s rhythmic rather than its lyrical elements.

Unlike the sonata, the six-movement suite, from 1973, makes in its movements’ titles specific programmatic and instrumental references: “Sacrifice” (a quietly thoughtful movement), “Drinking” (a rhythmic movement employing double-stops somewhat in the manner of Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances as transcribed by Zoltán Székely), “Reed” (similar to “Pe Loc,” in haunting harmonics, in the same work), “Battle Dance” (making a more forceful statement, also in double-stops), “Calling Back Spirits” (the most plaintive movement), and “Dance of Good Year” (a vibrant evocation of the folk dance). The third and fourth rondos (both from 1983)—the first, teasing and playful in its principal thematic material, and the second, more straightforward—sandwich between them the earlier Ballade, from 1952, which provides an interlude more abstract in its expression than the other works that come from its period—yet equally heartfelt, perhaps especially in Ku’s sympathetic, touching performance.

Ku mentions in her notes that she had attempted to produce on occasion an “erhu-style sound,” and at lyrical moments such as those in the sonata’s second movement, the incorporation of folk-like elements enhances the effect; but Ning Lu’s idiomatic and sensitive piano accompaniments also achieve a sense of exoticism without drawing upon special timbres or techniques. And that exoticism emerges in the sonata and rondos as well as in the pieces with descriptive titles. As in the case of the first volume, this one can be recommended generally—but especially to those who wish to explore Chinese violin music more thoroughly—and especially for those pieces written in a more abstract style.

Elaine Fine
American Record Guide, July 2010

The musicians play with such sincerity that it becomes very easy for people with western ears to get swept into the world of bamboo, elegant landscapes, and the introspective beauty of ancient Chinese culture.

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

Greg Cahill
Strings Magazine, April 2010

…Music for Violin and Piano, Vol. 2 (Naxos), the latest volume from violinist Hsiao-mei Ku and pianist Ning Lu. Ku is a member of the Ciompi Quartet and a professor at Duke University’s department of music. And, once again, as this eloquently executed and captivating performance shows, she has her finger on the pulse of Chinese classical music. Sicong studied in America and made this nation his home in 1967 after fleeing China’s repressive Communist regime…

Uncle Dave Lewis, April 2010

Pianist Ning Lu provides a superlative accompaniment, working with Ku’s stirring ebb and flow to create an air of genuine excitement. Ma’s artistic sensibility—including such admirable qualities as graciousness, sparkling rhythm, dynamic drive, and soulful melodicity—never changed despite his difficulties…For some listeners the idea of a composer sidestepping the issue of forward development in his/her work over time might be a turnoff, but when you have such an original and well-defined sound as Ma demonstrates in piece after piece, who would want it to change? Violinists of all kinds will find much nourishment in Naxos’ Ma Si-cong: Music for Violin and Piano 2, though most others should find it fulfilling, as well.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2010

Having studied violin and composition in France during the 1920’s and 30’s, Ma Sicong had become one of the leading pedagogues in his native China when the Red Guards forced him from his employment in the days of Cultural Revolution. Suffering physical abuse at their hands, he was eventually allowed entry into the United States where he spent the last twenty years of his life, dying in 1987 at the age of 75. He had pioneered Chinese folk music fashioned in a Western classical style in the hope that it would bring it to international attention. Yet as this disc shows—the second volume in his music for violin and piano—it leaned heavily towards the West. The Third Sonata is particularly a product of his French education, its two short movements in a rhapsodic mood. Elsewhere the music is of a lightweight character, the opening Spring Dance setting the scene for short pieces in a relaxing mode. Even his more extended scores, such as the Gaoshan Suite, are a collection of cameos. All tonal and uncomplicated, the brevity allows little room for the development of thematic material. There are recognisable influences with Bartok in the pounding Battle Dance of the Gaoshan Suite, and the soulful Russia frequently appears. The soloist,Hsiao-mei Ku, divides her time between the United States and her native China, her role not technically easy, and she has the inner knowledge of having played for the composer while a young student. Ning Lu is a very agile and well-balanced accompanist. Part of an ongoing ‘Chinese Classics’ series, you may find in certain geographic regions that obtaining it through Internet is the easiest way.

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