Album title: Jiang Wenye: 16 Bagatelles & Other Century-Old Chinese Music
Performers:  Michael Kevin Jones, cello / Agustin Maruri, guitar
Label: EMEC E-097
Playing time: 60’12"
Recorded: November 2010

Jiang Wenye
(1910-1983) was a musical maverick and pioneer who only in recent decades has been rediscovered and acknowledged by mainland China and Taiwan. His music there was only performed again in the early 80s. But eighty years prior his works had been held in high esteem in Japan and were recognized by the Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin who became Wenye’s mentor and champion, concertizing and publishing his works in the West. The Sixteen Bagatelles Op.8 were originally written for piano solo in 1936. They won a prize for outstanding composition in the Fourth Venice Music Festival in 1938.

While ‘East meets West’ has become such an impassive cliché nowadays, it’s no small wonder that Jiang captured its very essence before anyone else and kept it afresh and alive up to this day. The best example are the Sixteen Bagatelles. They are the composer’s creative benchmark which signified his realization of cultural roots when this Taiwanese-born Japanese-educated Western-trained composer first set foot on Chinese soil. When the Jones & Maruri Duo told me they were going to record the work indubitably transcribed for cello and guitar, I had no doubt that it would add sparkling color combinations and a fresh dimension to a renewed round of artistic East-West encounters. Transcriptions of course are not without risk particularly for a piece this close to my heart, be it the original form or the 1939 orchestral version known as Sketches of the Old Capital Op.15. My initial listening to this album was a mix of thrilled joy and mild disappointment. The latter came from the two movements I like best and which Jiang brilliantly orchestrated himself in his Op.15 as "Theatrical Atmosphere" and "Peking Gate". Jones & Maruri's chosen tempo is almost too slow to fully capture the majestic pulse of the Peking opera theater. Already with the original solo piano score I used to compare "Peking Gate" to Mussorgsky’s "Great Gate of Kiev" on patriotic fervor and heroic grandeur. That scale I simply missed in the cello and guitar version.

Transcription is the art of recreation of course. I had to remain open-minded during this renewal of my experience with my favorite Chinese composition. And Jones & Maruri do bring the Chinese spirit to live with their bow and strings, notably so in No.4 "Charamela", No.11 "The Afternoon Erhu" and No.15 "The Midnight Pipa" where the two instruments converse in traditional ethnic dialects. Despite my criticism of No.12 "Theatrical atmosphere", the sprightly dynamics and contrasting tone colors created through sul ponticello (bowing near the cello’s bridge or plucking near the frets of the guitar) are very dramatic. The Bartokian percussive attacks and Stravinsky-like primitivism in No.6’s "Allegro feroce" are truthfully preserved. Above all it was the pathos in the melancholic movements of No.2, No.7 "Epitaph" and No.9 "I remember" that melted my heart whilst the rustic folk spirit of No.10, 13 and 14 had me wondering whether they weren’t really tailor-made for cello and guitar.

The second half of the repertoire here is devoted to sixteen pieces of traditional Chinese folk melodies transcribed by Agustin Maruri. Having heard these melodies since I was young, Jones & Maruri still gave me good reasons to listen again. If I could have just one wish, it would be for Mr. Maruri to embellish with more theme and variations-type developments at least some if not all.

One exceptionally elaborate transcription is "Yi Tribal Hymn" (or Yi Tribal Dance) for guitar solo. In 1960 Huang Huiran wrote the original for pipa, a pear-shaped four-string instrument with frets. It was popularized by Yin Biao’s guitar transcription who is one of the most influential classical guitarists/educators in modern China. Maruri’s transcription differs somewhat from Yin’s, which has long been the ultimate edition among Chinese guitarists including EMI artist Xuefei Yang. While Yin’s version is arguably more technically challenging, I find Maruri’s the more musical and Asian (Yi being a minority tribe in the Southwest near the Vietnam border). This is further reinforced by the fact that most Chinese guitarists tend to accentuate technical brilliance to turn the piece into something like Flamenco whilst Maruri’s playing despite his Spanish origins is the more lyrically appealing. East meets West indeed.

Two other interesting melodies are "Jasmine" and "Daffodil" which are in fact related but most often confused even by the Chinese. "Jasmine" originated in Nanking during the early Ming Dynasty. It ‘traveled’ to various provinces where the melody took on localized flavors.

The southern version "Daffodil" is more spirited and lively compared to the pensive and nostalgic original. It was the southern version which was to become the first national anthem of the Qing Dynasty when the Chinese government was forced to partake in diplomatic occasions following the Opium Wars. This melody later became known to the West as the Turandot Theme when Puccini used it in his famous opera.

Maruri has handled the transcriptions of these two songs very well. The lively "Daffodil" is a playful dialogue between the lead guitar and cello counterpoint while the cello sings out the nostalgic "Jasmine" in solitude. Listen and compare. They are similar but not the same.

Superior sound quality captures the two instruments in very natural ambience. My only quibble is the change of atmospheric ambience during the slow-to-fast time change in the Yi Tribal Hymn.