This disc inaugurates a new Channel of China series from the Netherlands' Channel Classics label, and engineer and co-producer C. Jared Sacks claims in the booklet that the series will offer the first SACD recordings made in China. The sound of this one is gorgeous -- superior in every way to the ethnographic recordings that clog university libraries and that have offered many Western listeners their only exposure to the classical instrumental music of China. Chinese music tends to occupy the quieter end of the world dynamics spectrum, and audiophile engineering tremendously benefits the subtle ornaments and overtones of the music. This album of music for the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese bowed instrument (it's likely the violin-like instrument you think of when you think of Chinese music), is noteworthy in other ways as well; it is stylishly presented (the use of color only for the glamorous picture of the soloist is especially sharp), and it seems to be aimed equally at Chinese and Western audiences (notes are in Chinese and English). It is, one might say, not a Chinese export of the old-fashioned kind so much as an assertion of the place of Chinese music in the international musical economy.
And what makes the album so compelling for the Western listener is the music itself, which displays a range of Western influences without ever being predominantly Western in style. Critics more familiar with the erhu will have to evaluate the fine points of Yu Hong Mei's playing of the instrument, but she certainly made programming selections that fit the aims of this album beautifully. The music is neither traditional nor, for the most part, exactly contemporary; it was mostly or all written during the twentieth century, and although the booklet refers to several of the pieces as erhu solos, all but two are accompanied by another instrument: a harp, Chinese cembalo (Yang qin), or piano. The four selections with piano are all fascinating; usually there is a piano introduction, more Western in style, before the erhu joins in with the melodic line. Sample especially track 3, Zhu Wei's Celebrating the Harvest of Grapes, where an idiom lying somewhere between Chopin and Fritz Kreisler (with a hint of jazz wafting in from somewhere) is made into music that's entirely Chinese in spirit. It is not only the instrumentation that shows Western influence; some of the music for the erhu itself reflects violin technique. The booklet notes are unfailingly intriguing but don't always give an idea of what to expect; Liu Wenjin's Ode to Shanmenxia Gorge (1960), one learns, "consists of seven sections, each portraying a work scene at the Shanmenxia Gorge power plant building." The Western listener may cringe at the socialist realism and at the suffering historically associated with it, but much of the music evokes the gorge itself, and all the programmatic pieces on the album are vivid even for the listener unacquainted with Chinese music. The listener may be moved to purchase this album because it embodies several "firsts" in the history of music distribution, but will play it repeatedly for the fascinating stories it tells, not least those of cross-cultural interaction.