Ravi SHANKAR (b.1920)
Anoushka Shankar (sitar)
London Symphony Orchestra/David Murphy
rec. live, 1 July 2010, Royal Festival Hall, London
One of the most memorable experiences I had while a student in London in the 1980s was a concert by Ravi Shankar at the Royal Albert Hall. Stunning improvisations of breathtaking rhythmic complexity and technical brilliance were of course all part of the wonders to behold, but my recollection is how, much in the tradition of the best Western chamber music, so much depth of sound could be achieved with so few instruments. Drones, tabla, sitar - that’s pretty much all there was, and all that was needed to fill the huge concert space with endless tracts of fascinating musical variation. Even just the tuning-up was spellbinding and no, I wasn’t high on 12 different kinds of herbs and spices, as Kinky Friedman might put it. The great master has of course worked with numerous classical musicians from the West, Yehudi Menuhin to name but one. Now he has turned his hand to a highly Western instrumental form, the symphony, played of course by that highly Western medium, the symphonic orchestra.
It is perhaps more of a marvel that Shankar waited so long before creating such a piece. Widely travelled in the West from a young age, he would have encountered a wide variety of music in 1930s Paris. Rather than absorb these influences, Shankar’s direction meant his becoming an ambassador for Indian music amongst Western musicians and audiences, and his influence in the 20th century in a multitude of genres, from the classical art music of Philip Glass to pop and jazz, cannot be underestimated.
With this Symphony you have to suspend your expectations in the High Classical or Romantic sense. This may be a four movement work with conventional indications like Allegro and Scherzo, but the timbre of the orchestra is coloured and altered in ways which make the sound unmistakeably non-Western. The use of a sitar, played by Ravi Shankar’s daughter Anoushka, is one crucial element. This is by no means a concerto for sitar and orchestra, but when the instrument appears it draws the ear’s attention like no other instrument. It is entirely distinctive in sound, but with Ravi Shankar’s use of sliding strings and Indian rhythms and scales it makes perfect idiomatic sense.
This is work without pretention, and indeed, the overall impressions are of pastoral simplicity or folk-like narrative. There is a kind of naïveté in the use of the orchestra, with rather unsubtle use of percussion and the expectation of modulations and harmonic variety never delivered. It is hard to square the circle between what we know a symphonic orchestra can do, and being able to take seriously what it is asked to do here. That said, Ravi Shankar’s music is never less than highly atmospheric and rousingly entertaining, and as I say, one has to set aside expectations established by a tradition from Beethoven to Berio via Bartók. Neither is there that sense of slowly developing but unfettered creative magic of the traditional Indian classical genre. Notated and inflexible, the music remains a sequence of chunks rather than those delightful exchanges and the rise and fall of tension and release within musical conversations between dedicated experts.
There is much enjoyment to be had here, but I find myself frustrated. The opening ‘sunrise’ drones are wonderful, but after only 30 seconds we’re thrown into clunky orientalism. I would beg for a longer transition or sense of development which grows organically from that superb opening. The first movement is great fun, but the association with the way Chinese composers have used the symphony orchestra in the past is unavoidable. A lyrical atmosphere is sustained in the second movement, the third establishes multiple rhythmic layers - as conductor David Murphy accurately describes in his booklet notes, “a hypnotic effect.” The Finale is the longest of the four movements, starting with a fragile and plaintive melodic introduction which once again is all too soon elbowed aside by the orchestra’s rhythmic juggernaut. The ending, with vocal expressions of tabla strokes from the orchestra, is all great fun and something in which Philip Glass fans will find common ground.
With a rich recording of this live concert this is more than just the souvenir of a remarkable music event. The performance is terrific, and Anoushka Shankar’s playing alone makes it worth the asking price. I can’t say every moment of this uniting of West and East is an unequalled success, and there are some elements which are downright corny - what one colleague terms ‘ouch’ moments. I have nothing but the highest regard and respect for Ravi Shankar and all of the musicians involved here, and found myself enjoying many aspects of this piece. On its own however, this Symphony is alas not the summit of Ravi Shankar’s wide-ranging and deeply influential legacy.
Superb event, but the piece remains a conflict of confluences.