Long hooked on the gritty folk intensity of rural Chinese music-making, I’ve never had much time for the suave polished solos of the conservatoire virtuosos (pipa lute, zheng zither, erhu fiddle…) that dominate the media. In rural China, instrumental solos are virtually non-existent: ceremonial life is dominated by ensembles, often for wind and percussion—such as the searing shawm bands.
And if there’s one thing that Gets my Goat more than erhu solos, it’s erhu solo arrangements of WAM classics. So this isn’t the kind of thing you might expect me to say—but this has to be the greatest ever rendition of a piece that I wrestled with on the fiddle through my teens:
That’s a truncated adaptation, of course (even with Sun Huang’s technique, some of the violin arpeggio stuff just won’t translate). Here she is later, playing a fuller version—still heavily arranged:
Seriously though, this is jaw-dropping stuff. OK, it’s part of the whole conservatoire shtick of extreme emoting (yet more distressing when they play “traditional” Chinese solos), and similarly virtuosic techniques are all too abundant in China. But just compare the versions of Heifetz or any other hallowed violin maestro on YouTube—no-one has ever remotely approached that depth of expression and mastery (it’s hard enough with four strings, let alone two). Both Sun Huang’s left-hand technique (like qigong, utterly internalised within the body, all in the service of the music) and the engagement of her bow with the strings, by turns mellifluous and gritty, are beyond belief.
BTW, as with Švejk (Shuaike 帅克), here we have another fine Chinese transliteration of a foreign name—Saint-Saëns is perhaps flattered by the rendition Shengsang 圣桑 “Sage Mulberry”. It sounds like one of those pre-historic deities. So in another post I just have to posit a link between the two great sibilant sages.
In the first video, note how Sun Huang is deluged beneath an avalanche of cuddly toys at the end. Quite right too. Before we begin agonising over sexist infantilising, if Heifetz had ever managed to play the piece even half as well, he would have deserved a similar bombardment.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, you can listen to my own rendition of Bach on the erhu, and speculate on musical life at the 18th-century Beijing court, here.
For other types of Chinese fiddles, see here.