VARIOUS COMPOSERS: Dream of an Opera, Volumes I and II. Works from Chinese operas – Various performers, including bamboo flute, shakuhachi, guzheng (long zither), Chinese bamboo percussion instruments, erhu/banhu/gaohu, pipa, cello, chimes, guqing (7-string zither), jinghu, guanzi (cylindrical double-reed), bangu (high-pitched drums) – China National Symphony/ Members of the China Philharmonic/ Huang Li Jie – Rhymoi Music – RXRCD 004(CD). No disc numbers. [Available from] ****:

Contrary to what you might think [or fear…Ed.], these two volumes have no singing in them whatsoever. In both of these CDs, the indigenous instruments listed above substitute for the human voice, sometimes with astounding effect. It’s a savvy move on the part of the promoters of Chinese music. They suspect European ears are not yet tuned into the high-pitched, often reedy singing style that characterizes Chinese operas. Therefore, in this age of expanding world music horizons, we hear the next best thing: the otherworldy tones of the jinghu, the mellow figures of the koto-like guzheng, and the non-intrusive but captivating percussion.

In Volume I, the background orchestral music may strike a familiar chord. Didn’t you once hear similar strains in a John Ford western? Although it seems naively romantic, don’t let it carry you off; a few second later, you’ll hear a solo interlude on guqing that could strike you as odd yet invigorating. There is much melody to savor from these interludes, and for the most part, they are well-integrated with the flow of the pieces. We hear extracts (I hesitate to call them “arias”) from folk operas like A Jade Hairpin, Ginseng Girl, two pieces from The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl, and my favourite, Miss Su San Goes to Trial. (I’d love to see that one on DVD.)

The pieces on Volume II seems more adventurous by a notch, requiring more opening of the Western ear. There are fewer (and shorter) sweeping orchestral interludes and more tunes featuring eastern instruments. Track 2 introduces erhus and gaohus (Chinese violins) in dialog with each other, a mixture resembling electronic music in high register. (Or perhaps electronic music resembles it.) The suona and the liquin are the reediest instruments I’ve ever heard. In tone they resemble medieval shawms, and they impart eerie moods to track 4. Try playing both these discs for guests. They may not know what to make of them at first, but will probably admit that this music–well-structured, tonal, and possibly very old—is starting to grow on them like Lychee nuts. No doubt there’s a lot more classical Chinese music where this came from. Maybe the next release will include vocal pieces. And for that release, why not specify the instruments on each track and provide a glossary? The two discs already comprise a worthy artistic endeavour. Why not make it an educational one as well?

[The disc label seems to indicate these are xrcds – probably expensive but likely superior fidelity, though Peter hasn’t told us about that…Ed.]

— Peter Bates