A formidable and finely nuanced technique with a nice dash of humour.
When the Utzon Musical Series’ presented its first classical guitarist in some time with this recital by Xuefei Yang, it seemed that the spirits at least of two of the greats of the instrument were also in the room.
When the Australian guitarist John Williams first heard Yang play he gave two of his Greg Smallman guitars to Beijing’s conservatorium – she played one of them in this recital – and the 37-year-old virtuoso finished her program with a wonderful sonata dedicated to Julian Bream by Cuban composer Leo Brouwer.
And who knows, perhaps the greatest of them all, Andres Segovia, was smiling benignly down as well.
It’s easy to see why Yang is considered special. She gave her first recital at the age of 10 with such acclaim that the Spanish ambassador gave her a concert guitar, and she was the first Chinese student to be given a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music.
On top of that her first concert in Madrid was attended by the great Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, whom she honoured again in the Opera House’s Utzon Room with a performance of his Invocacion y dansa, a tribute to his friend and mentor Manuel de Falla.
But despite all the accolades and honours, Yang retains a modest stage presence with a nice dash of humour (“if you don’t enjoy this work I hope you can enjoy the views” she quipped from the stage in front of the window looking out on Sydney Harbour).
When this is combined with a formidable and finely nuanced technique and the pleasing ability to mix Western classics and Chinese folk and contemporary material, the mixture is irresistible.
For this recital she chose to open with three Johann Kaspar Mertz arrangements of songs by Schubert, including the much-loved Standchen from Schwanengesang cycle. Here we saw Yang’s smooth navigation through the various fingering positions to carry the lush melody, culminating in seamless alternating bass and treble lines.
More of her understated artistry was to the fore in the next piece, Bach’s much-arranged Chaconne from the Solo Violin D Minor Partita. This works well with the guitar, though without the spectacular fireworks of Busoni’s piano transcription.
There’s no shortage of pyrotechnics in Chen Yi’s set of Chinese folk tunes composed for Yang. Inspired by the shuochang tradition, the guitar is called upon to be narrator, singer, drummer and accompanying musician. At one point Yang imitates the pipa, a traditional banjo-like instrument, in this work that received its Australian premiere.
Coupled with this was Yang’s own interpretation of a charming traditional Chinese song.
Rodrigo’s homage to de Falla, with its subtle use of harmonics and fandango figures and rhythms led to perhaps the most technically challenging piece on the program, de Falla’s own Spanish Dance No 1 from La Vida Breva.
Much loved as an orchestral show stopper, Yang’s decision to arrange it for solo guitar was, she admitted with a smile, fraught with difficulty. This was bravura playing of the highest order.
Brouwer’s three-part work – each movement inspired by a composer (Beethoven, Scriabin and Pasquini) – made an interesting and ultimately thrilling end to this concert.
The icing on the cake was Yang’s heartfelt and deliciously judged encore of her favourite guitar piece, Francisco Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra where the tremolo right hand seems to evoke the stonemasons’ delicate tracery work of the Alhambra palace in Granada.
Next up in the Utzon Music Series is Austrian clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer on November 9, at 3pm.