Although its traditional pipa is related to the guitar, one doesn't immediately think of China when one thinks of the classical guitar. China is full of surprises, though. It turns out that since 1982, China has had a school specifically devoted to classical guitar. It was founded by Chen Zhi, whose pupils have included Xuefei Yang (b. 1977), who began working with him when she was only ten years old. After completing her undergraduate studies in China, she was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in London, where she graduated with distinction in 2002. She now enjoys international success, and has several recordings to her credit. This is her fourth, and her second for EMI Classics. (Its predecessor was Romance de Amor, released in 2006.)
"Joyful" is an unusual word to use about a guitar recital, perhaps, but it fits 40 Degrees North very well. Yang uses her impeccable technique to produce results that are so bright and buoyant that one might almost call them frothy. She barely seems to pluck the strings; it is as if she simply moves her hands over them and they produce brilliant sound. Her hands are tremendously agile, and her control is such that she draws a broad spectrum of colors out of her instrument with apparent ease. Guitar recitals sometimes suffer the fate of being pleasant but somewhat dull. That's not a problem one will encounter on 40 Degrees North. Even in a work such as Tárrega's Variations, whose technical demands run the risk of exceeding its value as music per se, Yang's teasing interpretation and uncanny tone-colors fairly transform it.
Her program is an appealing mix of Spanish favorites and Chinese discoveries. Listeners might do a double-take hearing "Jasmine Flower" from Stephen Goss's suite The Chinese Garden, because Puccini used this melody repeatedly in his opera Turandot. It is an authentic Chinese melody, though. This suite is a collaboration between Goss and Yang, and it is based on traditional Chinese folk themes. That's true of the other Chinese works on this CD. The Butterfly Lovers is a violin concerto based on the story of two ill-fated lovers; here, the second movement has been arranged for solo guitar by Yang, who arranged most of the selections on this CD.
This is really a delightful CD, and not just for those who like guitar recitals. As long as Yang doesn't get pigeon-holed into playing a narrow repertory – I believe she can play almost anything – she should have a long and lustrous career ahead of her. This CD is just the beginning, I hope!
Copyright © 2008, Raymond Tuttle