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CD Feature/ Ying Quartet: "Dim Sum"

img  Tobias

The great thing about Chinese food is its diversity: Only minutes after entering a restauant, you will find your table filled with plates and bowls of sweet, sour and spicey dishes, all different and delicious. This metaphor is unfortunately only seldomly used for programs of classical music, but the Ying Quartet may be just the right group to get the message across.

Composed of Timothy, Janet, Philip and David Ying, the Chinese-American ensemble knows as much about the pleasures of their original home country's cuisine as they do about the power of intelligent and surprising repertoire choices: Their backcatalogue encompasses Jazz and classical core repertoire and they have been as instrumental in promoting young American talent through their continous String Quartet commissions as in bridging the gap between traditional Chinese music and the Avantgarde.

After years of playing their way into the elite league of String Quartets, „Dim Sum“ is probably their most offensively progressive statement yet and the first to exclusively feature scores from  compatriots. Composers presented on this disc range from veteran Chou Wen-Chung and seminal Ge Gan-Ru to aspiring and rising youngsters such as Lei Liang and Vivian Fung. Dedicated to the theme of cultural intersections rather than to a specific style, it has turned out eclectic and sometimes even radical in its width, bringing together music usually confined to a select and specific genre.

If one, however, regards „Dim Sum“ as a representation of their famously colourful live performances, the outward contradictions no longer seem out of place at all. On „Song of the Ch'In“, the Ying Quartet imitate the sound of the classic Chinese instrument mentioned in its title, welding the sound of their four instruments into one and providing for bewilderingly precise mimicry. Fung's „Pizzicato for String Quartet“, too, is an obvious showstopper, its plucked tones gradually aligning, before moving from the strings to the wooden body and forming percussive patterns.

For most listeners, the artists highlighted on the CD will be complete strangers, with the exception of Tan Dun, maybe, whose short tryptich „Drum and Gong/Cloudiness/Red Sona“ closes the album. In reality, however, they represent the absolute top of the crop of 20th and 21st century Chinese composition, providing for a long overdue overview. Bright Sheng combines ambient textures with sudden outbursts of violence in his „Silent Temple“ extracts, Lei Liang binds scenes of pristine pastoral beauty together by means of stunning performance techniqus and Chen Yi's orchestral fantasies create a musical handshake between the East and the West. It is Ge Gon-Ru's eleven minute long „Fu“, however, which represents the beating heart of „Dim Sum“. From upwardly and downwardly curved tones, the piece develops into a hypnotic soundscape with sudden, unpredictable and synthetic-sounding volcanic erruptions. To Ge Gon-Ru, the basis of his art (and of all Chinese creative expression, by the way) is the similarity to caligraphy – a proposition made apparent by the clear strokes of each instrument and their visual and directional movement. Even the more aggressive passages sound as though someone were violently scratching over a piece of paper with his brush.

„Dim Sum“ is not aimed at a grand conclusion, nor does it want to be regarded as educational material. Its audience is presented with mere extracts from the work of a composer, sometimes even with samples of these extracts. And yet, this approach caters to the natural curiosity of open listeners, who will find this album to be a true treasure trove. Further supplemented by the informative and pleasantly unacademic liner notes of Viola-player Philip Yang, the album has the potential of filling anyone with a faint interest in China, its cultural heritage and future with the desire to find out more. Restaurants may not bad place to start your journey, but, as „Dim Sum“, proves, this country has a lot more on offer.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ying Quartet
Homepage: Telarc Recordings

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