Beside those three epoch-marking figures, Cung Tiến, Phạm Duy, Trịnh Công-Sơn, the Vietnamese galaxy can also boast various lesser luminaries. We only have room here for two: Hạnh-Phúc Nơi Một Con Đường (At the Horizon’s Edge), by Trần Lãng-Minh, on the fifth track, and Mắt Lệ Cho Người (Lachrymosaics), by Từ Công-Phụng, on the tenth track,
Vietnamese, a member of the Austro-Asiatic family of languages, can be described morphologically as a tonally-inflected tongue with a strong tendency toward monosyllabism. While beautiful in themselves, those particularities do create insurmountable problems in musical composition: they transform every pre-composed melody into a prosodical labyrinth, defeating most lyricists’ resources. Composers in Vietnam therefore almost always write themselves the words to fit their own music. In all the divergent practitioners of these challenging complexities, Trịnh Công Sơn unquestionably stands as the last word (no pun intended). His subtle melodies are more than tunes: they carry the nucleus of a minimalistic verse-form, the vehicle for Công-Sơn’s poetic utterances. Those are sheer perfection: they rank among the best ever penned in his native language. We turn to him in the last four tracks of our CD.
From track 5 to track 8, we turn to Phạm Duy unanimously recognized as the single man who cast the longest shadow across the music of his country in this century. Since war precludes Vietnam from building any solid basis for a higher musical culture, the only creative outlet has been through vocal compositions. But the situation there is more often than not quite baroque (in both the figurative and the comparative senses): it allows just unadorned melodies, the composer having typically left all attempt at accompaniment to the discretion of his performing groups. So the tune is all there could ever be. That’s truest with Phạm Duy. What melodies!
A thoroughly Italianate vocal line distinguishes the first selection, Hương Xưa (Aria All’antica), elaborate scena con recitativo which constitutes an idyllic hymn to pre-war Vietnam, from its three companions. The last one of this first group, Hoài-Cảm (Secrèters Langueurs), with it well-contrasted opening and middle sections, the first a Largo doloroso in C-minor, the second a swaying valse lente in the parallel major key, has always been a favorite with the Vietnamese young ladies who want to graduate from Chopin’s Waltz in A-minor into something even more congenial. On the other hand, our second selection, Nguyệt-Cầm (Selenemorphosa), has always kept its forbidding reputation. Both the poetry and the music are recondite.
In presenting this small selection of Vietnamese music, we have chiefly opted for the most transcriptible material at hand: Westernized vocal compositions written especially for the native audience, newly recreated as concert solos for the piano, in a composite style which aimed to combine two aspects of nineteenth-century western music, i.e. post-classical performance practice with late romantic harmonic language.