Thursday, 28 August 2008

RVW is Chinese ! Prom 55 Erhu

The erhu is a Chinese bowed instrument, with a resonating box, a bit like a western violin, but more plaintive and "liquid". It's exquisitely expressive, and can sustain extremely long legato. Classical Chinese music is primarily chamber music, and for private reflection, rather than public show, though the erhu is also a folk instrument, once played on the streets by blind beggars. In ensemble, erhus are often accompanied by flutes, lutes, and dulcimers. It was quite difficult to find a decent sound bite, as most of the youtube stuff is seriously horrible playing. But here are some clips. If I could figure how to upload stuff off CD, you'd really hear what the erhu can do !

Now listen again to The Lark Ascending. Because it's familiar, it's fashionable for smart types to sneer at it. But listen to the Lark with completely fresh ears, and hear how original it really is. There are erhu melodies which sound very similar (except I couldn't find them on youtube) Just a bit more spare and pentatonic, and RVW could have been writing Chinese music. Given that Chinese music is undergoing a massive revival, there's lots of spoofs of western music using Chinese instruments. The Lark Ascending would translate perfectly to erhu. Obviously RVW had no idea about Chinese music, but it's a bit of a myth that he was writing English folk music in this piece. England became urbanized and industrial long before the rest of Europe, and folk music is robust stuff. In this Prom, it was played by two performers outside the cynical school of thought that treats RVW as cowpat yokel. Akiko Suwanai and Susanna Mälkki, soloist and conductor, both come to The Lark without preconceptions, and hear it as pure music, without connotations. The result was playing of vivid freshness, the violin soaring free and fluid, almost painfully graceful, like a bird in flight. Unbelievably high timbre, pure as clean air. Perhaps RVW "heard" it as nostalgic and idyllic, but such things are by no means exclusive to English or western culture. Now listen again to the erhu clips and hear the correspondences.

Pairing The Lark with Ravel's Shéhérazade was also inspired. Ravel is consciously writing about "other worlds", in the grand French tradition of exoticism. It's a deliberate attempt to explore new colours and textures. Could RVW have written something so magical had he still been constrained by Stanford and Parry ? EXCELLENT Prom and much more unusual and thought provoking than you'd expect. Listen again ! RVW is less "English" than we think.

1 comment:

Michael J King said...

I agree about the lark Ascending...perfect for the erhu. I have dabbled in erhu before, here is my page from 5 years ago...