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: