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Ganesh B. KUMAR (b. 1966)
Spirit of Humanity
Symphony No 1 in D minor, “Rise” [22:23]
The Journey [26:12]
Undaal Amma Ivvulagam [2:42]
Shalini Singh Bahaji and Keshav Vinod Kumar (vocals), Jaqueline Zierau (soprano), Peggy Klemm (alto), Maik Gruchenberg (baritone), Matthias Schulze (bass)
Choir of the Opera Halle
Staatskapelle Halle Orchestra/Bernd Ruf
rec. 2-3 July 2019, Rehearsal Hall of the Staatskapelle Halle, Halle, Germany

Because Western-style classical music by Indian composers is something of a rarity, especially in the catalogues of non-Indian commercial recording companies, this CD is worth exploring. On purely musical grounds, however, it holds very little interest for the musically-informed listener; it tends to be a hotch-potch assemblage of tonal ideas cobbled together very loosely and succeeding on disc solely because of the exquisite playing of the Staatskapelle Halle Orchestra and a very fine recorded sound. But there is more to it than that.

Ganesh B. Kumar is a native of Chennai who, like so many other Indian musicians with a bias towards western Classical music, clearly owes a huge debt of gratitude to the examinations of Trinity College, London. He declares in his biographical note that “it was always his desire to compose music that would elevate the spirit of mankind. This goal has not changed to this day, and remains his standard of accomplishment as a composer”. Add to that the statement that “Rise”, his first symphony, “is a feel-good symphony in three movements, invoking the spirit of positivity”, and the overall title of this CD – “Spirit of Humanity” – and you get the message: this is all about trying to make the world a more cheerful place through music.

And, to a certain extent, the symphony succeeds. It is billed as a “homage to Beethoven”, and the very opening trumpet call, echoed by horns and the full orchestra, is the rhythmic motiv which launches Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Other than that, however, the spirit of Beethoven is wholly absent, and the plethora of short, undeveloped, and largely disconnected melodic ideas has about it the sense of sweepings from an editorial floor; the kind of things Beethoven might have put in a notebook and never revisited. All the same, the energy Bernd Ruf releases from his orchestral players – there’s a particularly pleasing section after 4:55 in the second movement where charming woodwind solos are invigoratingly supported by the strings – and his ability to smooth over the frequent rough edges of Kumar’s writing, does instil in the listener a certain sense of good cheer, and while I would make no arguments for this symphony as anything other than a very fragile piece of music, the ultimate effect Kumar is clearly aiming for is, to a large extent, admirably achieved.

Clocking in at almost half-an-hour, The Journey - From Despair to Hope (to give it its full title), described as a Symphonic Poem, is a very different kettle of fish altogether. An evocative flute solo, with tiny hints of Oriental spice, leads into a sparse setting of words by Georgina Margarite Ezra sung by a vocal quartet with the barest of accompaniments. It does not quite hang together; the ensemble is fragile, and the text is rather clumsily set, aiming more for clarity of diction than musical flow, and one breathes a certain relief when, at 3:38, it reaches an end and the orchestra comes in with a jaunty march, which itself veers oddly between the circus-parade and the military parade-ground. This heralds a sequence of largely unconnected orchestral ideas - including, notably, a charming passage for cor anglais and harp, and a beautifully eloquent cello solo - which collectively tell the story of Polish refugees during the Second World War, saved from Nazi persecution by the Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijay Singhji, who had them transported to safety in his personal state of Navanagar. The story, I must confess, is far more interesting and compelling than the music; but, again, while this does not stand up to close scrutiny, there is something more here than the music itself, and Kumar has done the world a good service by bringing this story of gracious and brave good deeds in India to the public notice. It culminates in the appearance of the Maharaja himself to the refugees, which is heralded by a brass fanfare, and a joyful chorus of thanks by the grateful refugees, sung with great elan by the chorus of the Halle Opera. Finally, the chorus and orchestra, now under the baton of Markus Fischer, sing ancient Tamil verses known as Undaal Amma Ivvulagam, (“It’s true that such people exist!”), in a setting which seems to show that Kumar had more than a passing knowledge of Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus.
A more traditional setting of the same text is added as a postscript, sung by two traditional Indian vocalists, Shalini Singh Bahaji and Keshav Vinod Kumar (and more than a generous helping of multi-track editing).

Marc Rochester

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