The Butterfly Lovers

Gil Shaham
International Record Review

The Butterfly Lovers

Chen Gang/He Zhanhao The Butterly Lovers Concerto.

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35.

Gil Shaham (violin); Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Lan Shui

Canary Classics CC04 (full price, 1 hour 4 minutes).


Producer/Engineer Da-Hong Seetoo

Date September 2004


Nishizaki, Shanghai Conservatory SO/Chengwu

(Naxos) 8.554334 (1992)

Vanessa-Mae, LPO/Fedotov (EMI Classics) 5 56483-2 (1997)

Nishizaki, New Zealand SO/Judd

(Naxos) 6.110082 (2003, rev. Oct 2004)

The Butterfly Lovers may not be, as the booklet suggests, ‘the most performed concerto in the 20th century', but it is undoubtedly the most famous and popular orchestral work to have emerged from China, its centrality to the development of Chinese symphonic music well documented in Ken Smith's extensive notes.  Recordings of the work abound in the east, while in the west it has become familiar largely through the recordings by Tanako Nishizaki on Naxos, a label with strong Chinese connections, and Vanessa-Mae's ‘Classical Album No. 2', which, when it was released in 1998, was seen as a celebration of her Chinese-ness.  This latest recording places The Butterfly Lovers Concerto in a more international context, as a worthy companion to the Tchaikovsky.

Composed in 1959 by two students at the Shanghai Conservatory, The Butterfly Lovers Concerto was a deliberate attempt to fuse Chinese traditional and western orchestral elements. To make it accessible to a Chinese audience, the composers (Chen Gang and He Zhanhao) took the famous Chinese legend of two lovers united after death as a pair of butterflies, and wove it into a western-style concerto.  The point is, it both tells a non-musical story and attempts to emulate a romantic violin concerto, and it is that duality of intention that so many recordings have failed to resolve.

Both Vanessa-Mae and Nishizaki tell the story - Vanessa-Mae in ‘Poor Innocent Chinese Girl' way, Nishizaki in a heroic ‘Oriental Womanhood Triumphs Over Male Oppression' style - and wholly dominate their respective recordings.  Indeed, the London Philharmonic is so dominated by Vanessa-Mae that its contribution to the EMI disc is pretty insignificant.  Gil Shaham lets the story take care of itself - or at least puts it in the hands of his imaginative producer, who sensibly tracks the disc so that we can follow the narrative - and expounds with considerable authority the musical values of the work.  He reveals The Butterfly Lovers Concerto to be a true concert work rather than a piece of Peking Opera without words.

A tangible rapport has grown up between the Singapore musicians and Shaham, who have performed The

Butterfly Lovers Concerto frequently in concert.  The intermingling of the orchestral and solo lines is quite magical; no other recording has come up with such a delicious duet between violin and solo cello or allowed the gu ban (Chinese percussion) to dance with such vivid presence.  The members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra may not all come from a Chinese background nor have this music so collectively ingrained into their souls as the Shanghai Conservatory Symphony (on Naxos), but they are certainly far more attuned to the idiom than their New Zealand counterparts (also on Naxos).  This has to be down to their charismatic conductor, Lan Shui, who is the personification of ‘east-meets-west'.  He has also turned this into one of the most impressive of Asian orchestras.  His profound understanding of the score, his masterly orchestral direction and his immense sensitivity in accompanying Shaham's enormously distinguished playing has certainly produced the most impressive version of the work on disc.

It would be nice to say the same about the Tchaikovsky.  Certainly Shaham is every bit as distinguished here, pouring out floods of effusive lyricism and exploding into moments of high drama.  Unfortunately, the orchestra seems overwhelmed and responds at best half-heartedly and at times (notably at the outset) distinctly uneasily.  Nevertheless, full marks go to the excellent recording, which should prove a real feather in the cap for Gil Shaham's own Canary Classics label, which, to date, has released just four discs.