Guan Xia: Earth Requiem (CD review)

Yao Hong, soprano; Liu Shan, mezzo-soprano; Jin Yongzhe, tenor; Sun Li, baritone; Shen Fanxiu, organ; He Wangjin, Qiang flute; Michel Plasson, China National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Virgin Classics 5099993411929.

My Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines a requiem as “any musical service, hymn, or dirge for the repose of the dead.” The most famous of these musical settings, of course, is the Requiem Mass of the Catholic Church, although Chinese composer Guan Xia didn’t exactly have this in mind when he composed his Earth Requiem in 2009. He wrote the work as a remembrance of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, which took thousands of innocent lives. Rather than simply mourn this loss, which the work certainly does, it is above all a celebration of life. Michel Plasson and the China National Symphony Orchestra, chorus, and others, an ensemble comprising over 100 instrumentalists, 150 singers, an organ, and four soloists, do the massive work justice.

The composer divides the Earth Requiem into four parts: (1) Gazing at the stars, a “Meditation for Orchestra and Chorus”; (2) Heavenly Wind and Earth Fire, a “Trilogy on a Fixed Melody, for Orchestra and Chorus”; (3) Boundless Love, a “Romance for Orchestra, Soprano, Bass and Chorus”; and Wings of Angels, an “Ode for Qiang Flute, Organ, Orchestra, Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, Tenor, Bass and Chorus.”

The first movement, Gazing at the Stars, is sweet and gentle, under Maestro Plasson’s direction projecting an appropriate melancholy, a mourning of the tragedy. It’s all rather solemn, yet there seems to be a note of hope here, too, a longing that all will be well. Plasson and his players give it a resonant, emotional uplift that is quite touching.

The second movement, Heavenly Wind and Earth Fire, is considerably different from the first movement in that it sounds almost angry, outraged at the brutality of Man and Nature. The booklet explains that the music is all highly pictorial as it “attacks the odiousness of life and the hypocrisy of mankind.” Plasson does a fine job conveying the music’s shifting moods of suffering, desperation, and ethereal eeriness.

The third movement, Boundless Love, comes as a welcome relief from the tensions of the previous section, for Boundless Love is just that: all heavenly melodies and restful lyricism. The way Plasson handles it, it’s beautifully serene, representing the healing power of pure love.

The final movement, Wings of Angels, begins with the sound of the Qiang flute, which has a tone resembling a bagpipe and sets the stage for the work’s climax. The music here alternates between fast and slow segments, mostly slow, some of it reflecting Chinese folk tunes. I found this the most moving part of the Requiem, as it ends on a note of triumph for all humankind. While the music of Earth Requiem may not be earthshaking in its inspiration or originality, it is uplifting to be sure. That is to say, I don’t know if Earth Requiem will ever become a modern classic, but surely there is no doubt Maestro Plasson does his best to show it in its best light.

Oddly, Virgin list the final movement on the back cover of the jewel case and in the accompanying booklet as 4.23 minutes. Actually, it’s 14.23. I can see company overlooking the mistake once, but twice? The entire symphony lasts a little over an hour, 63.51 minutes.

Producer Guan Xia and engineer Daniel Zalay recorded the Requiem at the Beijing Concert Hall in March of 2011. The sonics they obtained are fairly open, widespread, clean, and detailed. Although there is a very slight forwardness to the strings that overly bright loudspeakers might exacerbate, I found it often added to the sound’s clarity. The chorus and soloists appear almost ideally integrated with the orchestra, nothing too close or too recessed. However, the singers can appear a touch edgy at times. Treble extension is good, the low end is somewhat light, and dynamics and impact are adequate for the occasion. Overall, the sound is a tad soft in the upper bass to middle midrange and, as I say, a bit sharp in the upper mids. Nevertheless, there is nothing distracting about it, and it does complement the spirit of the music nicely.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa