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