Yang Xue Fei is on a mission to change how we listen to guitar. This is an extremely ambitious goal, approached and achieved in the past by the likes of Segovia and Bream. It sets her apart from other guitarists, no matter how wonderful or dazzling their talents.
As is always the case with Fei, it's fascinating to observe how her culture influences her art. Her right hand technique, in particular her tremolo, is unique (influenced by the pipa?) and she can draw her repertoire from a civilization stretching back thousands of years. All of this is played through an instrument that came of age in Spain. Perhaps due to existing in two cultures (born in China, now living in the West) she seeks out new ways to bridge the gap. "40 Degrees North" does just that, while pushing her agenda forward in convincing fashion.
This collection unites not only two musical traditions, but the body of work that Yang Xue Fei has produced thus far, the logical next step to follow "Si Ji" and "Romance de Amor." The transitions from Spanish compositions to Asian repertoire are smooth and artful; the lightness and tranquility of "Jasmine Flower" is magnified by the brightness of "Castilla" which precedes it. The transition from "Blue Orchid" to "Variations on the Carnival" is seamless; borders are erased and energies fused. Yang joins these two different aesthetics, and though she makes the task seem effortless, it's born from years of discipline, native artistic talent and a pioneering spirit.
The material spans 3 centuries, and includes strong compositions by Stephen Goss (who shares Yang's musical goals), traditional Chinese pieces and Spanish repertoire. The Chinese pieces might be new for most Western ears, though fans of Asian music will recognize many themes. "The Butterfly Lovers" stands out for its tenderness and elegance. The Spanish works sound new again thanks to Yang's arrangements and timing, as well as the placement (playing order) mentioned previously. The Valses Poeticas have never been so aptly named. She just makes little changes, but it makes a world of difference. This is her strong suite, never to be satisfied, always to want for a new creation. This is her great gift to us as listeners.
This is the third recording of "Yi Dance" by Yang. The first (Classical Guitar by Xue Fei Yang) was filled with exuberance. For the second outing (Si Ji) the arrangement was revised significantly. This current version is the polished result of hundreds of performances over the years. She dances between the literal, the symbolic and the abstract qualities that tie all the elements together; we watch the song, we listen to the dance. The pauses have been tightened by microseconds and either her playing or the recording techniques have brought out the undertones to brilliant effect. Listening to the 3 variations in succession, one can see how she has both sharpened and softened her talents over the last few years. She is able to transport the listener to a new landscape through her power of expression and great technical skills.
"40 Degrees North" is an excellent CD from an exceptional talent. Her unique perspective and vitality shine through in every note and nuance. It's a personal statement, an autobiography from an artist with few boundaries. Yang Xue Fei takes the listener into musical territory that is hers alone, but ours to share.