This is an elegant, ravishing album. On first encounter, it might place you firmly in a ‘traditional’ British orchestral soundworld, and lovers of that heritage should investigate this without hesitation. However, there are mysteries and idiosyncrasies waiting to be discovered on further listens – and no wonder, given Xuefei Yang’s distinctive brilliance and composer John Brunning’s unconventional approach.
Commendably, part of the album’s appeal lies in its compact nature. Resisting the urge to fill the disc to the brim, the programme runs to a crisp 46 minutes: two major suites, followed by an encore piece of sorts. This works in the record’s favour, given the lavish nature of the content, avoiding both information and emotion overload. I can well imagine it as two sides of vinyl, in fact, with a natural pause halfway through to process and re-group.
That said, though, I’m going to look at my imagined ‘side 2’ first, which mostly consists of ‘Five Romances’, followed by the stand-alone ‘Lacrimosa’. Everything on the entire release is a premiere recording in some respect – for this half of the programme, it’s the first time these works have appeared in these versions. The Romances were all originally in various other formats before Brunning re-worked them for guitar and orchestra:
- ‘Pastorale’ – solo guitar
- ‘Dusk’ – motet
- ‘Elegy’ – strings
- ‘Saharan Sunrise’ – solo guitar
- ‘El Verano’ – motet
Throughout the Romances, however, I was struck by the ‘balance’ of the writing and would be interested to know if other listeners feel the same. While there are orchestral moments that are beautiful enough to make you melt with contentment, the guitar is absolutely front and centre. Even on those pieces where the instrument didn’t originally feature, the guitar part is now the main event: on ‘Elegy’, I felt particularly strongly that, a few connecting passages aside, you could almost remove the orchestra from this actual version and Yang would be playing a fully-realised, self-supporting guitar solo.
(Full disclosure: as my classical listening tastes tend strongly to art song and instrumental solo recordings, I was always going to be hyper-aware – unnecessarily, as it turns out – of any hint the orchestra would pull focus from the guitar. Many of my favourite Yang performances are solo, such as the unaccompanied selections on her amazing last album, ‘Sketches of China’, and I would also recommend the Globe Music release ‘Songs from our Ancestors’, where she collaborates with tenor Ian Bostridge.)
I think the publicity notes released for the album go some way towards explaining this. Brunning is part of the classical music mainstream – sample quote: “music and melody will always be indivisible to me” – with a long-running parallel career as a presenter on UK radio station Classic FM. However, he has also played guitar in rock bands and openly acknowledges being influenced by a range of genres. In the CD booklet, he also reveals that he always writes on guitar, before settling on the ultimate arrangements for his pieces.
With such a deep understanding and affinity for his soloist’s instrument, Brunning seems to have created arrangements specifically designed to showcase Yang’s virtuosity. With the orchestra shimmering behind her, Yang often provides not just melody, but bass and rhythm too – see ‘Pastorale’, not quite as restful a track as the title suggests, Yang’s precise picking the piece’s main source of propulsion.
The closing ‘Lacrimosa’ tells a similar story on a micro scale, as Brunning expands his original guitar piece into a duet for guitar and cello. In some respects, Yang modestly concedes the limelight here to cellist Johannes Moser, who plays his yearning melodies with compelling intensity. But listen more intimately, and notice how Yang’s playing somehow combines the expected sensitivity and delicacy with a rhythmic punctuation that gives the piece its anchor.
The disc’s main event is of course the premiere recording of Brunning’s ‘Magna Carta’ concerto for guitar and orchestra in its fully completed form. The concerto was originally written for Yang, and she brings the commission full circle by creating the Cadenza we hear her perform between the second and third movements.
Throughout the entire running time of the Concerto, Yang is in total command. Neither her tone nor her style are ever showy, or excessive; instead she finds that quality of beauty in precision: I sometimes think when listening to her records that the emotion comes as much from her seeming to tread so carefully through the music, treating it with such respect and grace.
Don’t get me wrong – there are fireworks: Yang’s astonishing rhythmic work as the orchestra takes over the main melody in the first movement; her unexpected downward cascade and agitated scales that ‘re-boot’ the second; the opening reel / main theme – and much of the rest! – of the third. But these displays are always grounded in a sense of poise and strength.
Finally, given my comments earlier, there’s no hiding my enthusiasm for the one point in the album which Yang gets to herself: her own Cadenza for the concerto. This is a magnificent solo, based on an inspired idea (blending the concerto’s melodies with English folk songs), perfectly executed. Here, Yang supplies her own orchestra, floating the tunes above rippling rhythms or arpeggios, all building towards a thrilling version of ‘Sumer is icumen in’. Masterful.