China Wind: Robert Schubert plays the clarinet music of Julian Yu

Robert Schubert, clarinet, with various artists
Classical, New Music
Move Records MD3351
Reviewed by , October 1st, 2014

Julian Yu is one of Australia’s most illustrious composers, with an international reputation and a long list of awards to his name. This CD presents a selection of Yu’s music from several stages of his career, with the common thread being the clarinet, and more specifically, clarinettist Robert Schubert, a long-time champion of Yu’s music.

As a survey of chamber and orchestral works ranging from the 1980s to the early 2000s, this album serves as a good introduction to Yu’s work. The playing from Schubert and his collaborators is exceptionally fine, and the recordings made in several locations around Melbourne capture beautiful, rich sounds from the various ensembles. This high fidelity tone-colour and sound quality is of course what every composer hopes for, but is perhaps particularly important for Yu’s very “classic” music which seems to demand a certain consistency of sound in performance and reproduction.

Clarinettist Robert Schubert

Clarinettist Robert Schubert

The earliest work represented here, Sol Do La Re, is a passacaglia study from the early 1980s. It’s a charming curiosity, and evidence of Yu’s longstanding mastery of the technical mechanisms of Western counterpoint.

Two more substantial works, Atanos and The Lamentation of Micius, date from a key period of Yu’s work, the 1990s. Here, we find the creative voice that made him famous, introducing what seemed to be a new kind of lyricism to late-20th century modernist concert music. Atanos (1995) is a very fine piece for clarinet, flute and string trio, inflected with a lovely warm chromaticism and references to the twilight romanticism of Zemlinsky, early Schoenberg and Berg.

The Lamentation of Micius (1997-8), on the other hand, takes inspiration from ancient Chinese Qin music. While not actually making direct use of the musical material of the original, the Chinese music suggested certain kinds of sonority to Yu. The result is a terrific ensemble piece for clarinet and string quartet, making particularly splendid use of pizzicato effects to create a beautiful sound-world that is somehow both abstract and poetic.

Composer Julian Yu

Composer Julian Yu

With the three-movement Silent and Alone (2000), originally composed for voice and orchestra but here presented in an alternate version for clarinet and string quartet, we find Yu giving free reign to the frank romanticism that must have been an asset during his early career as a “ghost writer” for film and tv soundtracks. Here, the chromatically saturated diatonicism that was always latent in Yu’s concert music gives way to explicit tonality and an aesthetic that sounds strangely retro, complete with quaint oriental flourishes.

The most recent work on the CD, a Concerto on Chinese Themes for Clarinet and Orchestra (2004) takes this a big step further into the well-trodden genre of folksy Chinese-Western orchestral hybridity. Appropriating some well-known Chinese “folk” tunes, this concerto seems to hark back to some kind of naively ideological musical style. A nostalgia for the composer’s youth? A political message about the role of China in the modern world? Or perhaps a respectful homage to the pioneers of Chinese orchestral composition in the optimistic years of the old republic, who themselves used some of these same tunes? What this style of music means for the 21st century remains unclear. The Greek composer Iannis Xenakis noted that when transcribed into western notation Asian music loses its unique characteristics and sounds like western music. Yu’s concerto seems closer in spirit to early Vaughan-Williams than to anything particularly Asian, and perhaps that is the point.


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