The piano didn't arrive in China until the early '20s, and it wasn't until the early '50s that the instrument was absorbed enough into the fabric of Chinese culture that piano competitions were held there. Since the 1980s, having a piano in one's living room has become something of a status symbol in China, much as it once was in the United States, and the instrument has been very widely adopted, not only by kids but by older Chinese who were never able to access a piano when young. China has always found it difficult to bridge its culture with the rest of the world -- even China's proud heritage of violin music doesn't sound at all like that produced in the West -- but the piano has offered a medium where Chinese artists can meet the outside world halfway. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, Chinese virtuosi such as Lang Lang and Yundi Li have claimed top awards at major piano competitions outside of China, a development unheard of in even slightly earlier times.
The development of Chinese piano literature began to take off in the 1970s, much of it in the form of piano transcriptions of traditional tunes among a small number proscribed by the Cultural Revolution-era Chinese government as acceptable. Pioneer pianist/composers such as Wang Jian-Zhong, Chu Wang-hua and Li Ying-hai created many of these arrangements, and they make up the lion's share of Naxos' Chinese Piano Favorites, performed by young Chinese pianist Jie Chen. Chen has taken prizes at numerous prestigious Western competitions, including the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv and the Van Cliburn Competition. Chen doesn't play like a "competition pianist," however -- she employs a wonderfully flexible technique, and is by turns spontaneous, explosive, expressive and exciting.
The selection is strongly pianistic and exudes charm, and the piano writing retains the traditional folk character of many of these melodies while taking a bit of the edge off the perceived exoticism and foreign-ness that has prevented many Western listeners from taking note of Chinese classical music. Some of the pieces here are staggeringly beautiful no matter what one thinks of Chinese music, for example Liu Yang River, Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon, and The Sound of Big Waves. There are a couple exceptions to the "transcriptions" rule; the Children's Suite of Ding Shan-de was composed in 1953 as an original piece, and it demonstrates some familiarity with Russian music like Prokofiev, as does Chu Wang-hua's 1964 transcription of part of Zhu Jian-er's music for the film The Great Land Reform into Celebrating Our New Life. In the 1930s, Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin was based in Shanghai for several years; his example proved lasting and spread widely among Chinese musicians.
The primary appeal of Chinese Piano Favorites, however, is not as much in the music -- which is very, very good -- as it is in the pianist, Jie Chen. Her projection of this repertoire, unfamiliar as it is to Western ears, affords it a sense of variety and richness of color that lifts it out of the realm of the exotic and into a comfort zone that seems cozy, even familiar. That is no small achievement in itself, and as an album, Naxos' Chinese Piano Favorites makes for an appealing and highly absorbing listen; some may even find parts of the album quite relaxing to experience in the evening hours, perhaps with a glass of brandy and a bubble bath.