This CD contains works by Australian writer Julian Yu and features pianist Ke Lin, a friend of the composer and a devoted, eventually dogged interpreter. The first 20 tracks are mini-pastiches, written as a contemporary Album for the Young and possibly to inspire Lin’s daughter in her piano studies. She’d have to be very proficient to take on some of these pieces that combine cuteness with studies – well, that’s what the neologistic CD title intends to say.
As for the other, more substantial pieces on offer, a few are sort of familiar, namely Yu’s re-interpretation of the Promenade and Great Gate of Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, along with three original pieces – Impromptu, China Rhapsody (the lengthiest constituent at a tad over 10 minutes) , The Happy Couple Returns Home – and an arrangement of a symphonic movement by Yasushi Akutagawa, the second part of his Music for Symphony Orchestra from 1950.
Two of these longer pieces appear to have been written/arranged for this CD, namely The Happy Couple Returns Home and the Akutagawa movement. Yu’s Impromptu dates from 1982, well before the composer migrated to Australia, and was recorded by Lisa Moore in 1992. The Rhapsody has apparently been left alone since 2012 when it was premiered by Jiangang Wu at the Sydney Opera House. But the Mussorgsky is harder to trace; Yu made an arrangement of the original masterpiece for piano in 2001 when he scored it for sixteen players or chamber orchestra – in fact, I seem to recall hearing it (or parts thereof) during a Pro Arte/Melbourne Chamber Orchestra event at a Federation Square concert. The piano version was organised for Ye Sisi to play at her graduation concert in the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts in mid-2007; when I say ‘it’, I’m guessing that we’re hearing only part of the complete piano reconstruction on this CD because the Promenade and Great Gate are described as ‘Oriental version excerpts’.
Still, the obvious emphasis in this enterprise falls on the Cutetudes, which are aphoristic (the longest is 3’12”, the shortest 0’43”) and packed with references or spoofs – so much so that your attention is taken up with recalling the classics (and others) that Yu cites, amalgamates or runs on top of each other. Condensed Prelude offers an impressionistic variant of The Well-Tempered Clavier’s Book 1 C Major Prelude; Two Swans under Two Moons presents Beethoven’s Moonlight under Debussy’s Clair de lune, before the Scene from Swan Lake precedes Saint-Saens gift to Pavlova – all very gentle and knitted together with subtlety. The Liebstod precedes the D flat love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet while the Dies irae chant also gets a mention in Compound Tragedy. A Phone Call to Mozart depicts the composer trying to write his own A Major Sonata but being interrupted by a ring-tone that bears a resemblance (for me) to a theme from Till Eulenspiegel.
What for Elise? begins with Beethoven’s famous bagatelle before deviating to the Radetzky March, flirting with a boogie bass line, flashing into Happy Birthday, Rimsky’s Flight of the Bumble-Bee, Khatchaturian’s Sabre Dance, flirting with the Ode to Joy, indulging in a burst of mitteleuropaische kitsch, moving back to the original A minor by means of Mozart’s sonata in that key, then detouring for a gentle/manic interlude featuring Leise flehen, Boccherini’s Minuet, Jingle Bells, the William Tell Overture’s galop, followed by a soupcon of the second movement to Schubert’s Great, the merest whiff of Tales from the Vienna Woods, a snatch out of the Brindisi from Traviata, and somewhere in there a Liszt march that I can’t place. It’s not particularly well-organized and you get just a few seconds to put your memory into gear, so the effect is of overload – clever, but jerky.
Yu takes on Schubert in Finished Symphony, toying with the Allegro‘s second theme from the B minor Symphony before moving to the finales of Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s Fifths to illustrate a consummation devoutly to be wished, accomplished through the final bars from the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Piano Concerto’s first movement. He revives memories of digital aches and teacher terror with Czernissimo; a wistful Why are Butterflies Sad? fuses Schumann’s Warum?, Grieg’s lepidopteral study and the Grave from the Pathetique Sonata with an unexpected sequence that inverts the melodic direction of Schumann’s slight piece. Folk Tune on Bach is just that: a Cantonese-style tune on top of the bass to the E minor Prelude from Book 1 of the 48 – over before it has begun.
A touch of the Menotti about Interrupted Symphony has the noble four-square theme of the finale to Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 interrupted by a telephone ring, an ambulance (not that convincing), somebody banging on the door, with Beethoven’s Fate motif finally thrown in to show the futility of persisting when everything conspires against you – at least, that’s how I read it. A real transformation takes place in Dovetailed Interlude where motifs from Bach’s Cello Suites in G Major and E flat are superimposed in a meandering haze. Pachelbel’s most famous product comes in for a refreshing reappraisal in Oriental Canon, the ornate later variations given a pseudo-pentatonic flavour. The composer moves into Mendelssohn territory with a setting of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the style of On Wings of Song.
Yu seems to have an obsession with Mussorgsky’s musical gallery because here comes another exploration: Harmonic Phrases at an Exhibition. The Promenade theme is interrupted by Nun danket alle Gott, Clair de lune, a scrap from the Andantino in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Chopin’s E Major Etude from the Op. 10, the opening bars to Wagner’s Tristan. a bit of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, the solo that begins Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and several other fragments I can’t recall. Like the Fur Elise piece, you hear a lot, but here it is better put together. God Save Hanon offers the famous first five-finger exercise as a support for the British national anthem
Another Hanon exercise follows, which allegedly revisits Saint-Saens’ The Swan and then Bach’s C Major Prelude from Book 1, although I only heard that book’s C minor Fugue subject. The 24th Caprice turns into a Chinese melody during Paganini and the Hundred Birds, then both are played simultaneously. Mozartian influences direct the following Rondo alla Twinka which again revisits Twinkle, Twinkle, here in the style of the famous A Major Sonata finale. Prokofiev’s cat melody gets clever two-part handling in Caterpoint. The series concludes with To Comrade Shostakovich which takes as its basis The Pioneers Plant chorus from the Song of the Forests Cantata, given fast motoric toccata treatment and spruced up with some quotations from other works by the Russian master.
Much of this series is charming and brisk; a slight amount of it is repetitive in that it says the same thing twice if not three times, and every so often the seams show through pretty obviously. But Lin’s enthusiasm for the exercise is apparent, informed by a reliable, sometimes dazzling pianism only let down by a note (or two?) in his instrument’s treble that is slightly out-of-tune. However, the work as a whole lives up to its title and is an attractive compendium for musicians, both experienced and amateur.
In contrast, the remaining tracks are agreeable experiences if several of them are also based on unoriginal material. Impromptu is treble-centric from its opening, with liberal splashings of Debussy/Ravel colouring although the rhythm is suggestive of minimalist practice. A sustained bass splash makes a momentary distraction from the upper-reaches work which fades into silence before a final statement of the piece’s chief motive. It’s a fine study in one particular type of pianistic timbre and well worth hearing.
China Rhapsody draws on a background that I don’t have, referring as it does to traditional songs and other pieces of Chinese music; however, I feel that I could acquire the necessary knowledge pretty easily. The opening is full of Liszt-style trumpet calls alternating with languor, employing melodies that are probably well-known in China. Here, they serve the purpose of fleshing out Yu’s equivalent to a Hungarian rhapsody’s lassan although, the further this first segment progresses, the more occidental its harmonic language as the tunes are chromatically filled in. The consequent friska is – of course – a presto with some jazzy syncopations, the work’s impetus held up for the glorification of a pentatonic tune before the excitement returns, suggesting Gershwin’s rhapsodies in their virtuosic clamour. Finally, the climax is rich in fist-full flurries across the keyboard and has a fine 1930s glissando finish.
Taken from a Chinese Huangmei opera, The Happy Couple Returns Home was originally an aria; Yu offers a continuous set of variations on it. The result is pleasant enough if the piece’s progress doesn’t move far from an E minor base – or a mode based on E. Occasionally, an out-of-tune high A breaks your concentration; yet, to be honest, there is not much challenging matter here, the composer quite content to curvet around his melody without subjecting it to any rough treatment.
The Mussorgsky brace begins with an essentially straight reading of the initial Promenade while plenty of oriental decoration is imposed above Mussorgsky’s score; the most striking feature here is the employment of a rapid downward-scale whole-tone flourish. For The Great Gate, Yu keeps the opening strophes restrained, the original cut down to thinner chords with plenty of filler to compensate for Mussorgsky’s bare semibreves and minims. The first chant interruption is striking and Yu employs his own brand of stentorian brashness after those quiet bars. The second chant section shows little new except his penchant for tremolo. I can’t see an improvement on the bell clangour that leads into the Promenade restatement and Yu’s downward arpeggios are a touch disappointing, although what he is leading into is not the original’s powerful clamour but a gentle orientalization before the tension of the striking final minim triplets comes through clearly. Yu supplies some celebratory downward major scales, afterthoughts that bring the piece to a placid ending. Both these treatments are not re-compositions but elaborations that stick pretty faithfully to their Mussorgsky fundamentals.
Finally, the Akutagawa transcription brought back memories from the early 1960s of the NHK Symphony Orchestra visit to Melbourne, conducted by (I think) Yuzo Toyama. Some modern Japanese work was premiered then and, even at this distance, I recall a music more creative and striking than this busy but derivative movement which owes a good deal to 20th century Russian greats but amounts to little more than froth and bubble; exciting for the pianist, I’m sure, but its attraction for the youthful student Yu, working in Japan at developing his craft, is not shared by this listener.
You gain insights from this CD, although not from every one of its components. Cutetudes is a jeu d’esprit and, like most of its school, has clear successes and other why-did-he-bother? moments. But you get a clear impression of Yu’s sense of fun and, in the later tracks, an awareness of the rather welcome innocence and unclouded tranquillity that informs his musical intellect.