Violinist Wei He, violist Jay Liu, and cellist Amos Yang are all associated with the San Francisco Symphony. Performing as the Bridge Chamber Virtuosi, they are are joined in one work here by Shenshen Zhang, who plays the traditional Chinese lute called the pipa. True to its name, the quartet does indeed display virtuosity in modern music in a variety of settings on its new self-titled recording.
Bright Sheng’s Seven Tunes Heard in China for solo cello calls for an assortment of techniques including harmonics, tapping the instrument’s body, and plucking the strings with a plectrum as well as traditional bowing and pizzicato. With titles like “Little Cabbage” and “Drunken Fisherman,” the short pieces evoke traditional Chinese music in creative, occasionally off-the-wall ways. There are passages where if you didn’t listen closely you’d assume more than one instrument was playing.
One of the seven pieces is meant to evoke the Mongolian landscape, which sets up Lei Liang’s 10-minute “Gobi Canticle” nicely. That work is meant to suggest various genres of Mongolian music, and to this layman’s ear it does evoke ancient shamanic rituals and vast, sweeping landscapes. Rich, buttery tones give way to sharp rhythms as the mini-suite proceeds towards the sweet folk tune with which it closes.
Erno Dohnanyi’s five-movement Serenade in C for string trio comes from a different musical universe, but relates to the Asian pieces through its use of Hungarian folk melodies. Composed in 1902, it’s the oldest work on the album and the one that will sound most familiar to classical music listeners whether or not they’ve heard it before. The trio proves equally adept at the deep emotionality of the Romanza, the counterpoint fireworks of the Scherzo, and the dense harmonics of the Tema con variazioni where Brahms meets Bartók.
Inspired by his parents’ experiences of the Japanese invasion of China, composer Chen Yi wrote “Ning” to commemorate the Asian Pacific Conflict of 1937. It’s a harrowing, cinematic, profoundly affecting piece of music scored for violin, cello, and pipa, and recorded here for the first time. Mostly arhythmic, it’s raw and assertive, even in quieter passages of soft pipa trills that suggest a dark flip-side of the romantic tones of Spanish guitar. Like the “Gobi Cancticle,” its single movement is suite-like, with a violent opening section, two quieter central movements linked by the snaking lines of the pipa, and then a tense, violent movement with percussive sound effects. But it closes on a hopeful, even sweet note of acceptance – or perhaps surrender.