Ravi & Anoushka Shankar

Param Vir
Horse Tooth White Rock
Ravi Shankar
Sitar Concerto No.1

Sandhya (evening) ragas

Ravi Shankar (sitar)
Anoushka Shankar (sitar)
Tanmoy Bose (tabla)
Nick Able (treble tambura)
Peter Macdonald (bass tambura)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jurjen Hempel

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 3 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Having bagged Plácido Domingo for the first time, Nicholas Kenyon’s second debut-coup of this year’s Proms season was to present Ravi Shankar, along with his daughter and protégé Anoushka, in a concert with a real sense of occasion. Such was the respect and warmth toward the 85-year-old master that his first appearance triggered a standing ovation; however, this was not until after the interval.

Pity the filler on such a programme, in this case Param Vir’s Horse Tooth White Rock, whose Western modernism sat uncomfortably with Shankar’s more traditional aesthetic. (Robert Maycock’s programme note recounted the familiar story of Shankar’s visit to the summer school at Darmstadt, where the music made him physically ill.) Based on the story of a Tibetan saint who kills his uncle in an act of revenge before attaining enlightenment, this was in fact an attractive and conventionally pictorial work, whose mystical tone owed something to Tippett’s “The Midsummer Marriage”. Vir handles a large orchestra with virtuoso ease, and there was a satisfying progression from the jewelled textures and clotted harmonies of the opening to the ecstatic duet for cello and cor anglais that concluded the work. Under Jurjen Hempel, the orchestral playing colourful and committed.

The only ‘fusion’ music on the programme was Ravi Shankar’s Sitar Concerto No.1, a pioneering work composed in 1971; if its innocence has dated a little, it remains a compelling piece. Each of the four movements explores the mood of a different raga, with the orchestra providing a launching-pad for the soloist’s extemporisations. Shankar’s orchestration (as transcribed by his student Fred Teague) is straightforward, presenting the melodic material largely in unison over drones; deft colouristic touches include a delightful canon for four horns and a moment where a descending harp glissando is echoed, subtly transformed, by the solo sitar. Anoushka Shankar has taken up her father’s piece, and from her first entry (across violins emulating a slightly harder-edged ‘Bollywood’ sound) she made it her own. Her elaborations on the scales and themes were exquisite, curlicued and languid in the first movement, then more rhythmically involved when joined by a bongo player in the second. There were well-handled call-and-response sections with bassoon and horn, and furious passages of unison fireworks to finish.

Finally, in the extraordinary second half (the orchestra departed), Ravi Shankar performed alongside his daughter and a small group with tabla and tamburas. The audience listened intently as father and daughter wove the improvisatory introduction to ‘Rag Jog’, in a style that emphasised their ceaseless inventiveness. While he may have lost a fraction of his astounding dexterity, Shankar’s musical acumen is as sharp as ever, and he seemed to delight in surprising Anoushka with unexpected melodic forays. It was fascinating to compare the two players; Anoushka shadowed her father perfectly, but her solo passages revealed a gentler, more even tone. After a short interlude (“that was tuning”, Ravi Shankar reassured us) they launched into an extended improvisation “in semi-classical style” that interpolated folk melodies and different ragas into a transfixing stream of musical invention, brought to climactic points of release by Tanmoy Bose’s tabla-playing before setting out, mercurial as ever, in new directions.

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