Xuefei Yang is taking the guitar world somewhat by storm. This, her third album (and second for EMI) features mainly transcriptions by herself and Gerald Garcia of Spanish and Chinese pieces. The title of this disc, 40 Degrees North, reflects the rough latitude of the capital cities of China and Spain on the world map. And by the way, isn’t it the strangest coincidence that almost every young female star musician these days happens to be radiantly beautiful? What an amazing phenomenon…EMI certainly has a corral full.
But I am not going to begrudge Yang her looks; in this case she happens to be the genuine article, and also the first classical guitarist to ever emerge from behind the Red Curtain of China’s Great Wall. And a splendid event it is, for Yang possesses a delicate and nuanced touch that renders the music of Albeniz and Granados as putty in her hands. Rarely will you come across a guitarist who can stoke the strings with such gracefulness. I am almost inclined, with some trepidation, to say that it may be a woman thing—after all, unlike a piano (which many still think susceptible to minute differences between the physical abilities of men and women), a guitar is obviously subject to various degrees of the strength of a player. If Bream is stronger than Yang, it almost certainly means that he can put more physical prowess into his playing (though there is probably a point of no return where he would not want to do such a thing). Likewise, it is not out of the question that her physique may indeed lend itself to a certain gracefulness of touch that other guitarists do not have. I don’t know—this is just speculation without any empirical evidence. But the facts remain that, one way or another she has a gossamer stroke that the EMI engineers have captured with superb fidelity.
The music is also quite fine. This is not a Germanic heavyweight album by any means, but rather a recital of impressionistic and melodic gems that make for a most rewarding hour of listening. As mentioned, the Albeniz and Granados works are closely aligned to the piano originals, and come across very well. But it is the Chinese works that are the most enthralling, from the popular and well-loved Butterfly Lovers Concerto (here just the first movement) to the wonderfully spunky Yi Dance. And Stephen Goss’s The Chinese Garden is one of the most evocative pieces I have heard since the guitar works of Toru Takemitsu.
We will have to wait and see what Yang can do when she gets to the real heavies in the repertory—Bach and the others. But from what I hear here, there are great treats in store. Definitely one of the best discs of the year!