In 1992, the Tucson-based Celestial Harmonies label (yes, it does sound very "new age") issued a 4-disc anthology of Chinese classical music from the Hong Kong HUGO label called "The Hugo Masters." Each disc focused on a classification of instrumentation, with the first dealing with bowed strings, the second with plucked strings, the third with wind instruments and the last installement concerning percussion.
The first disc is 67 minutes of amazing music from thirteen tracks with top-flight musicianship and virtuosity, as well as remarkable production and sound from the HUGO label, founded by Aik Yew-goh, who was a musician, engineer and producer. Their release through Celestial Harmonies marked the first time this music had been heard outside of Hong Kong.
By "bowed strings," what is meant for this recording is various forms of lutes accompanied by percussion, plucked strings and others. Some of it is vigorous and lively, others contemplative and plaintive, with strength and sensitivity often going hand-in-hand or leading from one to the other.
Chinese music often reflects beloved stories and tales from history and one can imagine, even without knowing the details of the narratives, how the music is composed to accompany the tales. As importantly, the music often features imitative qualities, in which instruments are played to mimic human conversations, the sounds of animals, and natural features like the wind or flowing of water. Human emotion is put forward in interesting ways, as well, reflecting martial qualities, pensive attitudes, cheerfulness, sadness and others.
As noted above, the playing is very impressive and the recording quality is top-notch. HUGO and Celestial Harmonies created a memorable and very affecting package that gives a brief glimpse into the rich history of Chinese classical music.