SHANKAR: Symphony (2010).
Anoushka Shankar (sitar); London Philharmonic Orchestra/David Murphy.
LPO 0060 TT: 40:52.

East interprets West. I know very little about Indian music. I can barely tell you what a raga is, let alone name one. From what I've heard, I can say that Indian music emphasizes melody, unusual scales, and complex rhythm. However, the lack of comprehension flows in both directions. An Indian grad student once complained to me about Mozart's "childish" melodies and "simplistic" rhythms, which indicated that although he heard melodic counterpoint and functional harmony, he dismissed it. I had a similar experience with Indian music at the two Ravi Shankar concerts I attended in the Sixties. Where was the harmony? Why all this noodling around on the sitar? The only musician in the group who impressed me was the tabla player. It took Westerners influenced by the East -- Cowell, McPhee, Hovhaness, Minimalists like Glass, even George Harrison ("Blue Jay Way") -- to readjust my view and give me a minimal entry into the music of the Indian subcontinent.

I have never particularly cared for Ravi Shankar's work, and so I approached this disc as a sense of duty, to see just how far the hype had risen. I was wrong. I think the Symphony an amazing work, in many ways a tour de force. In its four movements (fast-slow-scherzo-finale), Shankar has created an analogy to the European symphony. From the vantage of a deeply Western view, he takes immense risks. Harmonies occur rarely. Shankar emphasizes a twisty melodic line and complex rhythms and phrasings. I noticed exactly one section of simple Western imitative counterpoint. Furthermore, over its entire forty-plus minutes, the symphony never shifts its fundamental tonic. You can think of an unvarying drone underlying the whole thing. What changes from movement to movement is the basic scale -- similar in Western music to a mode. Western music has fourteen modes (theoretically, if you count Lochrian and Hyperlochrian), while south India has at least 70 ragas. Shankar uses traditional ragas in the first two movements and original ragas in the other two. Despite all this, the score grips you. You mark new scales, unexpected turns of melody, and absolutely electrifying rhythm. There's even a surprise in the final movement. Shankar has remained true to his musical roots and brought the West along.

I have some question about the work. The liner notes credit the conductor, David Murphy, with working out notational problems and orchestration. I don't doubt that Shankar has created the basic material and the sitar part and built the argument. However, the orchestration, rather brilliant, contributes to much of the score's success. Had Shankar any hand in the orchestration at all? The liner notes don't say.

Shankar should have loved this live performance. His daughter Anoushka, a virtuoso in her own right, plays with passion and commitment. The LPO under Murphy manages to glitter with relatively few notes, and Murphy himself deserves a lot of credit for the dynamic shape of the symphony. It ain't Bruckner, but it doesn't have to be.

S.G.S. (January 2013)