Not so much a tone poem, but rather a concerto with tone poem-like qualities…and a concerto that is a multi-movement work and a collaboration between multiple composers. Whew! It’s the Yellow River Piano Concerto, arranged into a concerto from themes by composer Xian Xinghai for a work called Yellow River Cantata. The work’s history is interestingly messy and problematic, as it was none other than Chairman Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who ordered a collection of musicians to adapt the Cantata into the Concerto. The work was extremely popular in China initially, but then disappeared from concert halls in that country for many years until it started being heard again in the 1980s. The piece is in four movements, titled as follows: Prelude: The Song of the Yellow River Boatman, Ode to the Yellow River, The Wrath of the Yellow River, and Defend the Yellow River.
The work is brash and very eager to please, and it feels almost like a guided tour of cliches in East Asian music. But there’s something unquestioningly compelling about the piece, and it always makes for a vibrant and exciting listen, mostly because its melodies are so gorgeous, its orchestral writing is so good, and (this is key) it’s only twenty minutes or so long, so it never overstays its welcome. Here is the Yellow River Concerto.