BRIGHT SHENG: Red Silk Dance; Tibetan Swing; The Phoenix; H’un (Lacerations) – Bright Sheng, piano/ Shana Blake Hill, soprano/Seattle Symphony/ Gerard Schwarz, conductor – Naxos 8.559610, 70:46 ***1/2:

Even with the tremendous production values of this disc (has anyone done more for modern music than the Seattle Symphony?) I remain a tad unconvinced by much of Bright Sheng’s music. He has certainly evolved—just compare the jazzy artistry of Tibetan Swing with the downright dour and pessimistic (with good reason) side swipes that come at you in H’un. Actually, in many ways, H’un (“Lacerations”) is the most affecting piece on this disc; it was written to denigrate the Maoist cultural revolution (something that affected the composer profoundly) in the most stringent of terms. The work is atonal and severely penetrating in its unrelenting musical criticism, and one comes away from it feeling not unlike a hearing of the Penderecki Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, only Sheng’s music is more readily accessible.

Red Silk Dance is essentially a piano fantasia, very attractive and rhythmic, an attempt at a not-too literal portrayal of the Silk Road and all of its many peopled varieties. The Phoenix is based on a story of Hans Christian Andersen replete with various middle-easternisms. I guess what bothers me most about some of the music is its episodic qualities; this is very much music of the moment and of the mood, and as a result there are sometimes lapses in quality or a sense of the disconnected between sections. But Sheng is an important voice, and as a recording this one must be marked as almost essential, especially if you are new to the composer, for it provides an ideal introduction to his Janus-like persona over a period of years. Performances are excellent with good Seattle sound, and this might be a nice discovery for some.

— Steven Ritter