'Oriental Landscapes' is a subtle showcase for percussionist Evelyn Glennie's...
Andrew McGregor 2003
'Oriental Landscapes' is a subtle showcase for percussionist Evelyn Glennie's skills, and the first piece, Chen Yi's Percussion Concerto tackles the obvious problem head on. She talks in the notes about combining Eastern sounds and folk music with Western art music: 'If you just put them together...then it sounds artificial. But if you can merge them in your blood, then they sound natural together'.
For the first two minutes there's the astonishing range of sounds made by a collection of traditional Chinese gongs, and when the orchestra enters it feels effortlessly oriental. Then there's the reciting style of the voice in the second movement, startling for westerners unfamiliar with Beijing Opera. The percussionist is also supposed to supply the vocals, but I can't believe this is Evelyn Glennie! If it isn't, the singer should surely be credited somewhere in the packaging?
After Chen's concerto ends (with the sounds of a traditional fight scene from Beijing Opera), Thea Musgrave's Journey through a Japanese Landscape could sound like pure pastiche. But of course it doesn't, and Musgrave doesn't try to imitate eastern instruments. Her concerto for marimba and winds is a kind of 'Four Seasons' based on Japanese haiku, and the marimba has the perfect range of woody colours and effects to evoke the autumnal fog or the wintry winds and swirling snows of the last movement.
Chen Yi's husband, Zhou Long doesn't bother imitating eastern instruments either; he uses the real thing. Out of Tang Court is, Zhou says, an attempt to give a new lease of life to the music of the Tang Dynasty by stretching the Chinese instruments westward, and the Western instruments eastward to achieve a common ground. The sounds of the erhu and sheng are eerily beautiful against the symphony orchestra, evoking a timeless, ceremonial atmosphere against which the outbursts of percussion feel peremptory, even ill-mannered.
And them we come to the prolific American, Alan Hovhaness, who died in 2000. I suspected his Fantasy on Japanese Woodprints might sound tame alongside the other works, but I needn't have worried. Hovhaness turned his back on the west in the mid-40s and spent twenty years travelling the east, and this is his love-poem to Japan. He doesn't need real Japanese instruments because he can make a symphony orchestra imitate them - startlingly good impressions of the hichiriki and the sho although it probably helps that this is the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, who are bound to have a better idea of the sounds of gagaku, Japan's ancient court music, than their western counterparts. Yes, Hovhaness is closest to imitation, but it's so beautifully crafted (and performed) he pulls it off; he didn't spend all that time in Japan without perfecting the accent.
Glennie is superb, and somehow self-effacing; you never feel that her performance is screaming 'soloist!' at you...and the recording helps, beautifully balanced. A Brit and American in Japan, a Chinese couple now in the States, a western-style symphony orchestra in Singapore, and a Scottish soloist...it needed Swedish diplomacy to stitch this coalition together, and it works surprisingly well.