XIA GUAN (b.1959): Symphony No. 2 “Hope”, Sorrowful Dawn - Symphonic Ballade, Earth Requiem I. Gazing at the Stars: Meditation.

Catalogue Number: 05R073

Label: Naxos

Reference: 8.570618

Format: CD

Price: $11.98

Description: The 45-minute symphony is epic in scope and scale, with big, ambitious themes. The composer writes: "There would be no driving force in life without hope, and it is hard to imagine what life would be like without it… I have written this Symphony for those who are sincerely in pursuit of their dreams." If that sounds a bit suspiciously like the kind of optimistic agenda that Soviet composers were required to espouse in their music, this impression is scarcely dispelled by the heroically striving motifs, thoroughly tonal vocabulary, or at times suspiciously close resemblance of parts of the work to Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. It is very well done, though, and the symphony is impressive in its own right. The first movement is subtitled 'Expectation and Quest' which pretty much tells you what to expect; introductory fanfares, thoughtful meditations of the path through life, episodes of strife and conflict through which our hero prevails through force of character, turning an optimistic face toward a future illuminated by the wisdom of the Party (or should that be 'the human spirit'?). After the thrusting narrative of the first movement, the restrained and peaceful slow movement "Warmth" is lushly neo-romantic, 'warm' in both its reassuring harmonies and rich orchestral textures. The finale begins with blazing fanfares that lead one momentarily to expect the organ toccata from Khachaturian's Third, but instead a swelling, surging second subject appears, after which the music becomes increasingly animated and propels itself to a triumphant conclusion. This may not be a great neo-romantic symphony, but it is an almost perfect copy of one. Earth Requiem is a four-movement work for soloists, chorus and orchestra, written in commemoration of the victims of the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Gazing at the Stars is its first movement, heard here in the composer's orchestra-only transcription. Beginning in sombre reflection, it gradually builds a solemn, expansive climax. The Symphonic Ballade draws on music from Guan's opera 'Sorrowful Dawn', about China's war of liberation after WWII. The work treats themes of 'love, bravery, devotion and death' and contains an exciting battle scene in the middle, culminating in what the composer describes as ‘strength and hope of a glorious victory in the great age of revolution', which rather takes us back to the apparent subtext of the symphony. The notes inform us that there is something 'almost Wagnerian' about some episodes in the piece. A candid observer might remark that the word 'almost' is superfluous. File this one under 'guilty pleasures'. But the pleasure is genuine, for lovers of full-blooded neo-romantic excess. Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra; En Shao.

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