The violin is a central instrument in all Chinese music -- traditional, popular, and concert music, as well. China has never lacked for great violinists and composers, and yet Ma Sicong is reckoned as one Chinese violinist/composer who stands apart from the rest. In terms of writing music that struck deeply into the Chinese soul, yet reflected just enough of the European influence to make it sound full and international in appeal, Ma was exceptional -- one might say he was the Bela Bartók of China. Harassed and humiliated by Mao's Red Guard during China's Cultural Revolution, Ma was forced to flee to the United States and never returned to his homeland. On Naxos' superb Ma Sicong: Music for Violin and Piano, Ma's former student Hsiao-mei Ku is joined by pianist Ning Lu in a recital that spans 50 years of Ma's compositional activity.
Ku occasionally employs an "erhu-style" approach to violin tone that bears out specific traditional characteristics in Ma's compositional thinking, but she does not overdo it; she seamlessly integrates this sound into the context of more standard western violin playing, as in the "Epic" movement of the Inner Mongolia Suite (1937). Ku's playing can also be tremendously exciting and vibrant, as in the opening Dragon Lantern Dance (1953) and warmly lyrical, such as in "Solitude" from the Amei Suite (1981). The music is extremely well programmed, and Ma Sicong: Music for Violin and Piano is the perfect disc for listeners who would like to enjoy Chinese violin music but can't quite get a grip on it, owing to its perceived plainness or exotic-sounding, "happy" scales. Ma's sophisticated harmonic language and grasp of traditional melody builds just the right bridge to Chinese music for non-Chinese who cannot find the way in the door, and few play it as well as Hsiao-mei Ku and Ning Lu do here.