Click here to return to the main site.

Classical Music Review

Cover Image

On & Between
New Music For Pipa and Western Ensembles


Composer: Zhen Chen
Performed by: Lin Ma (pipa)
Label: Navona Records
RRP: £13.99
Release Date: 11 May 2018

On & Between is a musical exploration of the dualities and the accompanying anticipation, agony, pride and compromise – poignantly capturing the states of mind of an immigrant on the journey of home-seeking and assimilation. Award winning composer Zhen Chen explores new possibilities by weaving traditional Chinese music instruments and folk tone with piano and Western style chamber music...

I thoroughly enjoyed Zhen Chen's On & Between. In essence, it's a continuation of his beautiful work on Ergo: New Music for Piano & Chinese Folk Instruments. However, I was a little disappointed that he used a lazy, rather cliched trick to get his vision across.

Have you ever watched an American film where the action suddenly switches to London? You can bet your life that a couple of bars of 'Rule Britannia' is woven into the music. The same goes for films that aren't primarily based in America, if they suddenly switch to The Whitehouse, we have to have a few bars of the American National Anthem.

So when Chen opens this album with 'Arrival', which is based on Dvořák's 'Symphony No. 9 (New World Symphony)' I thought it was a bit of a cheat. But then, getting across the same mental image from his own, original composition, would have been near impossible. Yes, it's a cheap trick, but it serves its purpose well to drag you into the recording. Mind you, I'm not sure using a track better known as 'Going Home' is the right choice for the arrival music here (although maybe that was the point as the traveller is going to a new home).

I'm not sure what, if any, traditional Chinese music Chen has incorporated here. It would make sense if you're going to include Dvořák then you'll also "borrow" something famous from a well respected Chinese composer too in order to show the origins of the newcomer.

On this recording, the main performer is Lin Ma, who plays the pipa (Chinese Lute), a traditional musical instrument with more than two thousand years of history. The pipa is used here to act as the part of the immigrant. Of course, it sounds "foreign" to Western ears and at first appears to clash a little with the other instruments... until it gradually starts to be embraced by the rest of the performers and begins to sound like part of the ensemble. Now, that's a clever and well realised trick that Chen manages to pull off.

The album closes with 'Harmony' in which the pipa opens as the main instrument of Dvořák's 'Symphony No. 9', before giving way to the rest of the instruments, and closing with all of the ensemble playing the familiar tune. It's beautifully realised and wonderfully performed.


Darren Rea

Buy this item online

Each of the store links below opens in a new window, allowing you to compare the price of this product from various online stores.

Digital album
Digital album