SHANKAR Symphony • David Murphy, cond; Anoushka Shankar (sitar); London PO • LPO 60 (41:49) Live: London 7/1/2010
This is one of those CDs you almost feel lucky to have in existence, as it preserves a moment in time and a work that may be a game-changer for future composers wishing to coalesce Western and Indian music. Ravi Shankar, one of the world’s music legends—partly for the right reasons, and partly for the wrong reasons—composed this work in which he united his two lifelong passions, Western classicalRead more music (his early idols included Enescu, Toscanini, Heifetz, Paderewski, Casals, Kreisler, and Chaliapin) and Indian ragas. What’s significant about this work is that he waited until he was 90 years old to write it.
One might think that an Eastern classical musician schooled in a different discipline would have difficulty, at 90 or any age, in fusing the two types of music, but Shankar has always been able to understand and intellectualize the differences between them. He has known for decades that the Western ear is attuned to harmony, modulation, and counterpoint, thus when he gave his sitar concerts—even way back in the 1960s—he patiently explained the differences to his Western audiences before playing.
This recording is the actual premiere, given at London’s Royal Festival Hall in July 2010. The demanding and highly virtuosic sitar solos are played by his daughter, Anoushka, who by contrast with her father had celebrated her 29th birthday less than a month earlier.
“This was conceived entirely for the Western symphony orchestra, so I had to eliminate the traditional Indian instruments but transfer some of their spirit onto the Western instruments,” Shankar told BBC radio on the day of the premiere. “I wrote it in Indian notation, which David Murphy, who is a student of mine and a wonderful conductor, has interpreted very well.”
The first movement, in particular, reminds one strongly of Minimalism, which isn’t surprising when one realizes that Philip Glass was one of many Western musicians who were heavily influenced by Shankar back in the 1960s. Based largely on a raga known as Kafi Zila, similar to the natural minor scale in Western music, it relies very heavily (at least at first) on repeated ostinato figures. Happily, as the movement goes on, it departs from the principles of Minimalism by actually developing its themes using an 11-beat meter with an extended solo for the sitar. Anoushka Shankar’s playing is extremely fluent in technique and rapt in feeling. It is not an exaggeration to say that she not only elevates this music, but that it would be difficult to hear the solo portions played by any lesser musician.
As the second movement (Lento) begins, one feature that strikes the listener is that unlike most Western symphonies, which cast alternate movements or alternate sections within a one-movement symphony in different keys, Shankar has chosen to present both movements in a key, or mode, similar to D Major. This movement, based on a devotional raga called Ahir Bhairav with a flattened second and seventh, has an extremely hypnotic effect. One is drawn into its calm lyricism to such an extent that its nearly eight minutes seem to fly by in half that time. Before you know it, the orchestra is beating the lively rhythm of the Raga DoGo Kalyan in the third movement, which uses the metric division of 2+3+2+3. Shankar’s use of this slightly tricky rhythm is artfully combined with very inventive motifs (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “themes” in the Western sense), which, like the exciting rhythm, pile one on top of the other to create a new kind of building effect. In the trio section (such as it is), the solo sitar combines its sound with a marimba and xylophone.
This movement, too, tends toward D, as does the final movement. Yet because each movement uses a different raga as its basis (the fourth uses the Raga Banj?r?, which has a flatted sixth and employs a lively folk beat), every movement sounds different from the others. Interestingly, this movement begins quietly, lyrically, lulling the listener into a state of relaxation from which Shankar only gradually moves into a livelier beat. If you listen carefully, he manages this transformation with much the same skill that Schubert used in the first movement of his great Ninth Symphony. One major difference is that Shankar also composed a contrasting lyrical section for the center of the movement as well, assigned, once again, to the solo sitar.
To a very large extent, then, Shankar’s symphony is a work for soloist and orchestra in the same sense as Berlioz’s “symphony” Harold in Italy. Thus any future performances will have to rely not only on the complete understanding of a sympathetic and Indian-music-oriented conductor, but also on a virtuosic sitarist of the caliber of Anoushka. This is a tremendous challenge, and also presumes that the sitar soloist will have as fine a grasp of Western classical form as Anoushka Shankar. For that reason alone, I foresee problems in spreading this music across the globe and presenting it with other Western orchestras, but you never know. Anoushka is young enough that she just might produce an entire school of such musicians. Highly recommended.
Anoushka Shankar (Sitar)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony: I. Allegro - Kafi Zila
Symphony: II. Lento - Ahir Bhairav
Symphony: III. Scherzo - DoGa Kalyan
Symphony: IV. Finale - Banjara
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
Good music, overlong applauseFebruary 19, 2013By roger horn (clarion, PA)See All My Reviews"Familiar as I am with Shankar and his music I found the symphony met my expectations and surpassed them for it did not sound like someone else had done the orchestration as it did in the sitar concertoes. However, the inclusion of ALL that applause ended my enjoyment of the music. There is no need for that much with anything."Report Abuse