The big news here is the presence of The Butterfly Lovers, a work known to Western audiences in fragments from Olympic figure skating performances and the like, but not so often heard in full from a violinist of the caliber of Gil Shaham. It is sometimes paired with the notorious Yellow River Concerto in concert, but it is slighter, less extreme in conception, and thus more attractive than that work. Like the Yellow River Concerto it is a joint production, but by only a pair of composers, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, not an entire committee, and its program is based on an episode from classical Chinese literature, not on a Communist plot. It was written in 1959. The seven short movements embody the story of a girl, Zhu Lingtai, who passes as male so that she can study literature. A boy in her class finds out what she is up to, and the two fall in love. Their love is doomed, however, because a marriage for Zhu to a wealthy merchant has already been arranged. The boy dies of grief, and Zhu throws herself into his casket as the funeral procession passes. In the end, they emerge as butterflies.
The musical structure on which this tale hangs is an intriguing one, a mixture of Western elements (such as the tuning and the orchestral writing in general), Chinese pentatonic melodies and ornamentation techniques, and a straightforward quality mandated by socialist aesthetics. The booklet is detailed and makes for fascinating reading for anyone studying the Cultural Revolution and its grim precursors: the composers initially omitted the final movement that depicted the emergence of the butterflies, but, in Chen's words, "The Western concerto form needs a final transcendence, and without the butterflies there is no concerto." Shaham plays the work to the hilt, drawing out the music's sentimental qualities but remaining alert to the ways in which the language cuts sentiment short, and the work is compact and entertaining. It is paired with a Tchaikovsky violin concerto that is elegantly and confidently played, although "gutsy" would not be a word used to describe it. The Singapore Symphony under Lan Shui adds to what is becoming an impressive catalog; it is a well-drilled ensemble that can easily stand comparison with the West's great urban orchestras. A fine performance of a work that's just unusual enough to catch on once again.