Review: Xue Fei Yang plays classical guitar

In her solo recital in the Great Hall on 8 February, the Chinese guitar virtuoso Xue Fei Yang chose a programme that gave her ample scope to demonstrate a wide range of techniques of playing the instrument. The earliest composition on the programme was the Suite in G minor for lute BWV995, by J S Bach – transcribed by the composer from his suite no 5 for solo cello, written around 1723. Bach’s transcription of his own suite succeeds very well on the guitar, even though the technique of sound production on a guitar or a lute – plucking the string, essentially – is completely different from that of playing the cello, in which a bow is nearly always used and legato can be achieved. Xue Fei Yang drew a remarkable variety of tone from her instrument, plucking the strings sometimes with her finger nails, sometimes with the flesh of her fingertips, and sometimes with a combination. As well as a slow and contemplative sarabande, the suite includes several faster dance movements: two gavottes, and a gigue as the final movement, which were played most fluently. Although Bach’s cello suites are written mostly for a sequence of single notes, he manages to imply the harmony so clearly that the listener is not troubled by there being just one note at a time. These are marvellous compositions for the cello, never bettered by later composers – and Xue Fei Yang performed the transcribed music very well.

She further showed her mastery of guitar technique in the Sword Dance by the contemporary Chinese composer Xu Chang-Jun. This is based on a poem by the poet Du Fu (712-770), who according to the concert programme is acclaimed by many as the Chinese Shakespeare.

In the second half of the concert, Xue Fei Yang played a series of short pieces, all but one of them by Spanish and Brazilian composers. These were most skilfully played, but it is less satisfying to listen to a set of short, unrelated pieces than it is to hear an extended work such as the suite she had played in the first half of the concert.

It must have been a testing evening for the soloist, who sat in the centre of the stage with just one small microphone in front of her. She used a hand-held microphone to introduce some of the pieces, but she seemed to have a cold, and, with her Chinese accent, this made much of what she said hard if not impossible to understand. If she was unwell, to play a brilliant solo concert for two hours, much of it from memory, was a remarkable achievement.

Contributed by Martin Widden.

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