Xuefei Yang, guitar. Elias String quartet; Eiji Oue, Orquestra Simphonica de Barcelona I Nacional de Catalunya. Warner Classics 2564 63662-1.
If you’re already a fan of Chinese classical guitarist Xuefei Yang, you probably won’t need this “Best of” album because no doubt you already have all the albums from which Warner Classics took the selections here. However, you are not familiar with Ms. Yang’s work, Sojourn: The Very Best of Xuefei Yang might be a great place to start.
Born in 1977 in Beijing, Ms. Yang started playing the guitar at the age of seven. By age ten, she was studying under the guidance of Chen Zhi, the Chairman of the China Classical Guitar Society. She made her initial public performance at the First China International Guitar Festival, and from there began winning various international prizes and awards. Subsequently, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Central Conservatory of Music, going on to become the first Chinese guitarist to study in the United Kingdom and the first guitarist to receive an international scholarship from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music for her postgraduate programme at the Royal Academy of Music in London, graduating in 2002. She has been performing on the concert stage and recording for EMI (now Warner Classics) ever since.
Among the first things one notices about Ms. Yang’s playing is that it appears lighter, airier, more ethereal and delicate than many of her rivals. You won’t quite find the same kind of brawny musicianship you get with Julian Bream, John Williams, Milos Karadaglic, David Russell, Andres Segovia, or any of the Romeros. And one must count that a good thing; Ms. Yang is her own person, with her own style, casting her own magical spells on the listener. Certainly, she’s cast that spell far and wide if her record sales are any indication. So, in Sojourn you get a pretty good idea of what the appeal of her musicianship is all about.
Ms. Yang seems to have a penchant for sweet, romantic tones, amply demonstrated in the opening number, Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring. It comes off very beautifully but more delightful than contemplative. Next, we hear Bach's Siciliano, a transcription from the Harpsichord Concerto in E. Again, Yang takes a smooth, graceful approach, certainly lovely but not entirely as biting or incisive as I would have liked. Obviously, personal taste is going to matter even more in appreciating Ms. Yang's guitar interpretations than it does in admiring many other kinds of performances.
And so it goes, each track apparently chosen for its comforting, spiritual qualities in order to sell new listeners on the beauty of Ms. Yang's view of music. Bach's Air on a G String from the Second Orchestral Suite, for instance, sounds as gentle as a feather, as does Bach's Prelude in C.
Perhaps best of all, though, and benefiting the most from Ms. Yang's manner of playing are the items taken from older Chinese works: The Butterfly Lovers, Plum Blossoms in the Snow, and others. They are quite delicious. I also enjoyed her playing of various Spanish pieces, among them Tarrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra, Albeniz's Tango, and Rodrigo's Adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez. Maybe it's all in the material, and maybe it's just me and I prefer Spanish music on the guitar. I dunno. Still, there are times when Ms. Yang's approach is just a tad too sentimental for my liking, but that's just me. Others will find it dreamily intoxicating, I'm sure.
The sound, recorded between 2006 and 2012, varies, of course, but not very much given that the tracks derive from a number of different recording sessions and venues over a decade or so of recording. Some of the selections sound a little soft, warm, and dry to me, but most of them sound rich, clear, and pleasantly resonant.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: