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SHENG: The Singing Gobi Desert; LIANG: Messages of White; MAN: Dream of a Hundred Flowers; RUO: The Three Tenses. Prism Quartet; Music from China; Bright Sheng, Nové Deypalan, Huang Ruo, conductors. innova 885. 58 minutes.

In his extensive and highly readable liner notes for this disc, John Schaefer writes that this disc demonstrates that “saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity”. That is an understatement, to say the least, as this remarkable program illustrates.

Bright Sheng’s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012, erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion) begins with a noisy and extravagant gesture, reminiscent of Messiaen. After that gesture (which returns) a melody snakes through the ranges of the various instruments, in harmony and in unison. The bulk of the piece consists in explorations and expansions of the implications of the opening. The piece moves easily through Western and Chinese idioms. without ever succumbing to what Steve Reich called “the old exoticism trip”. Bright Sheng’s piece explores the sonic space that both separates and unites the instruments in a way that is both brilliant and expressive.

Messages of White (2011, saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin and percussion), by Lei Liang, explores a very different landscape from Sheng’s Gobi Desert; a snowscape. This is a far more “abstract” landscape, with few overt references to the musical traditions that lie behind the instruments used. Glissandi on the erhu are combined with bowed percussion sounds to create a background in front of which the other instruments grow increasingly active, then less active towards the end of the piece, leaving the background as it was in the beginning.

Fang Man’s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and saxophone quartet) finds each saxophone paired with one of the Chinese instruments in a study, really a celebration, of the melodic styles associated with Chinese opera, with some very jazzy harmonies popping up from time to time. Over the length of the pieces, the duos join with other duos and the two quartets explore different relationships, like characters in an opera. It is a shapely piece, expressive and lovely.

The program ends with a searching performance of Huang Ruo’s The Three Tenses (2005, pipa and saxophone quartet). From a slow and spare beginning, the piece blossoms into hive of melodic activity, that reminds me at times of some of Luciano Berio’s melodic elaboration pieces (Voci, for example). It is very colorful and alive.

The sound is outstanding on this valuable release. Highly recommended.

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