Label news: Joshua Bell to record Chinese concerto

We hear that the peripatetic US violinist will perform the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, a rose-tinted Maoist work of the 1950s by two Chinese composers, He Zhanhao and Chen Gang.

The recording will take place in Singapore on August 31 for release by Sony Classical in 2019.

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  • Many readers will be unaware that this concerto has the most impressive sales figures of almost any violin concerto. The several versions by Takako Nishizaki on Naxos alone have sold more than 3 million copies. Others who have recorded it include Gil Shaham.

    • … Sales figures likely boosted because of “hometown pride” among the legions of music-lovers in China.

      Speaking personally, I’ve seen this piece performed in concert, and while the piece is pleasant enough, I didn’t find it to be a particularly compelling composition.

      • Your view needs to stand corrected. The concerto is melodic and sweet, easily accessible even by non-classical music followers. It truly has nothing to do with “national” nor “hometown” pride.

        I am not even sure if it’s Maoist at all. The work is about a tragic love folk lore in the ancient time, nothing to do with politics (let alone Communism).

        If you made the same statement about the “Yellow River Concerto” (for piano & orchestra, about WWII), then I’d concur with you.

        • It’s 2018. Maoism isn’t on the minds of music-lovers in China.

          But cultural pride is — and that’s a universal trait in most countries.

          As you write, “The concerto is melodic and sweet, easily accessible even by non-classical music followers.” I don’t disagree with that. But it’s also not a particularly memorable or compelling composition.

          Nonetheless, pairing “Bell with the Butterflies” will be a commercial success for Sony — helped by Chinese sales.

          • I have listened to it a number of times and concur it is not very good unless you like sweet, unmemorable and non-challenging music.

          • This is the greatest violin concerto of all times and its sweet simplicity is what makes it great. The Chinese live and die by this piece, even those who don’t know classical music know this piece.

      • IIRC Nicholas Maw wrote it for him without commission, just inspired by the great young violinist. So Bell was decent enough to record it. But he indicated at the time he probably wasn’t likely to play it again; maybe he doesn’t really care for it, maybe it wasn’t worth the effort to tell orchestras he wanted to play it. Easier to rake in big fees playing the Bruch and Tchaikovsky over and over again. He’s not exactly renowned for an adventurous repertoire; Maw should probably have written it for Gidon Kremer or Jennifer Koh.

  • This piece uses Chinese melodic material in the way 19C Russian composers used Russian folk melodies and clothed them in respectable Western-European garb.

    It seems that He Zhanhao wrote the opening theme and that Chen Gang worked-out the rest. But this opening theme also seems to be an old Chinese folk song.

    And this is how it all sounds:

    Its popularity is, no doubt, due to its easy accessibility and its closeness to film music, and its sugary sentiment which reminds people of the innocence of early youth and universal romanticism, untouched by the cruelties and horrors of the world.

  • I greatly enjoyed Bell’s interpretation of Saint-Sains’ Violin Concerto at the Proms last Sunday. He was also succesful in leading the Acadmy of St. Martin in the Mendelssohn Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. A very fine musician, indeed!

    • “Pretty late, I’d say, in trying to cash in on the Chinese market.”

      Bear in mind that in addition to the huge home Chinese market there is also the massive 50 million+ Chinese diaspora. Sales will be far from limited merely to China and Asia.

    • The title is 梁山伯與祝英台小提琴協奏曲, “Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai Violin Concerto”. The story’s title is often shortened to Liang-Zhu, and is sometimes also called “The Butterfly Dream 蝴蝶夢”. “Lovers” just became the conventional English translation.

      The Shaoxing opera 越劇 version of this story is classic, and was the inspiration for the violin concerto (Shaoxing opera / 越劇 enjoyed a surge of nationwide popularity in the 50s). I recommend watching an operatic version of the tale – particularly a Shaoxing Opera 越劇 version – for those who want to understand a bit better the structure and melodies of the concerto. Non-Chinese audiences unfamiliar with this material are missing out on quite a bit.

    • It is about Lovers who became Butterflies, not Lovers of Butterflies. The Lepidopterist Concerto would be rather funny.

      Are there other titles with similar misinterpretations ? Tchaikovsky 2nd might be The Russian Dwarf ?

  • Butterfly Lovers is THE quintessential Chinese symphonic work, greater than all the worthless crap being created by so called Chinese composers like Tan Dun, Chou Wen Chung, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, etc. No Chinese orchestral work can measure up to Laing Zhu. Every Chinese of the older generation live and die by this Concerto.

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