- Qin Music: Two Recordings
The Chinese qin or guqin is a central instrument in Chinese music history and a symbol of traditional Chinese culture. These two recordings show its range, depth, and beauty. They would be welcome additions to any music library.
Himmelsk Musik för Qin och Xiao / Celestial Music for Qin and Xiao features Deng Hong (qin) and Chen Shasha (xiao). The combination of qin and xiao creates a calm, gentle atmosphere. As one of the lightest, breathiest, and smokiest of Chinese wind instruments, the xiao pairs well with the sparseness and gentility of the qin. Virtuosity is rare and unobtrusive, as in the latter [End Page 175] portion of "Flowing Waters" (Liushui), which aptly conveys the rushing and gurgling of a mountain stream.
At 54 minutes, the program is on the short side. But for listeners who have endured too many overstuffed 80-minute albums, this may be a welcome change. The engineering is excellent, sharp, and incisive—you can hear the sliding fingers, wobbling strings, and scrapy fingernails, which are so important to this repertoire and are sometimes difficult to discern in less detailed recordings.
The last track, "Creaks of the Oars" (Ao ai), is a highlight. Deng's playing has a rustic, almost guitar-like vigor, with heavy strumming that evokes the dipping of boatmen's oars as they move upstream on the Yangtze River. Deng also brings out the varied possibilities of dynamics, texture, and reverberation in the middle section with its playful repetitions. A wonderfully long diminuendo ends the piece, passing from antiphonal chords to an angular melody and then into a flurry of slides and rasps. As the disc closes, we linger not only on the music but also on the textural qualities of the strings.
The cover art, with its dignified portrait of the two artists clad in gold against a black and dark gray background, matches the feeling of the music: in Polonius's words, "rich, not gaudy." In the cover photo, Deng is in the foreground, Chen behind—this too is appropriate, given that the qin stars and the xiao is treated as an obbligato instrument.
The liner notes, in Swedish, English, and Chinese, are excellent. Cecilia Lindqvist (b. 1932), the disc's producer, writes with deep knowledge of and affection for the guqin and Chinese culture as a whole. This is unsurprising, as Lindqvist began her qin study in Beijing in the early 1960s, when her teachers included such celebrated figures as Guan Pinghu. One of that master's star students was Wang Di, who in turn is the mother of Deng Hong, so the disc has an air of multigenerational collaboration between Chinese and Western musicians that is rare and laudable.
Especially welcome in the liner notes are Lindqvist's details about the provenance of pieces. Thanks to these notes, the listener can learn when a piece was first notated and which qinpu (book of tablature) Deng has used in her recording. As the date, form, and style of pieces differ significantly with different qinpu, the information Lindqvist provides is invaluable. Be sure to leaf through the entire booklet, as illustrations with bilingual Swedish-English captions are sprinkled among the different translations. Comparisons of qin of different shapes, details of decorations such as jade insets and tassels, and a scale drawing of the Marquise of Dai's qin from 167 BCE are among these thoughtfully selected images.
Himmelsk musik is a gem of a disc for qin lovers and beginners alike. It can be recommended without reservation. Sadly, the Caprice label is no longer [End Page 176] producing new recordings, according to its website (http://musikverket.se/capricerecords/om-caprice-records/?lang=en).
Whereas Himmelsk music is straightforward and artless in presentation, the second disc, a recording of solo qin pieces by Cheng Gong-liang (called Guqin or, in Chinese, The Guqin Art of...