The Very Best of Ravi Shankar (CD review)

Ravi Shankar, sitar; Yehudi Menuhin, violin; Paul Horn, flute; Anoushka Shankar, sitar; and others. EMI 50999 6 29455 2 (2-disc set).

When I first started college, I remember the name of Indian composer and sitarist Ravi Shankar (b. 1920) being very big in campus circles. Despite the prevalence of rock-and-roll at the time, Shankar's music was among the "in" things, and you heard it everywhere. That was nearly fifty years ago, and to my knowledge he's still going strong at ninety.

Now, I also admit to knowing next to nothing about sitar music. The nice thing is, you don't have to.  It's a plucked stringed instrument used in Hindustani classical music, where it has been popular for many hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. Shankar is the artist probably most responsible for bringing it to the attention of the Western world, his having begun touring with the instrument in the early 1930's. On this two-disc set, EMI offer selections from five of Shankar's albums, all of them quite well recorded and helping one to get to know the music that much better.

The first five tracks come from the Grammy Award-winning album West Meets East, which Shankar recorded between 1966 and 1976 with violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin. The two artists, accompanied by Alla Rakha on tabla and Prodyot Sen on tanpura, fuse Eastern and Western music in most charming and accessible ways, even for people like me who have no background in the subject. The rhythms and cadences are at once familiar yet different, and they are highly infectious. The melancholy "Raga Piloo" is of particular interest for the poignancy of its themes and "Twilight Mood" for its Eastern echoes of American blues.

Two selections from the album Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000 end disc one, with Shankar playing duets with his daughter Anoushka Shankar in fairly lengthy works before a live audience.

Disc two opens with India's Master Musician, 1963, the earliest recording in the set. It may actually be the best place to start, too, as it offers some of the most fundamental pieces in the collection.

In Portrait of Genius, 1964, flute player Paul Horn joins Shankar for five brief selections. These seem to me the easiest of the music to digest. The tunes are like Eastern pop songs, and you can almost imagine them on the flip sides of old 45's.

The last four tracks come from the album Sound of the Sitar, 1965, and feature Sharkar's friend and collaborator Alla Rakha on tabla in the final two items. They are the most rambunctious of the lot but tend to lose a little of the music's charm in the process.

For a person like me, a little sitar music goes a long way because, as I said, I don't know enough about it to sit and pay attention for sustained periods. But I did listen straight through these two discs and enjoyed what I heard. There is enough variety in the music and enough virtuosity in the music-making to keep one involved.

Recorded between 1963 and 2000, the sound is generally clean, vivid, and transparent, with an excellent transient response. That is, the notes begin and end quickly and precisely, with little or no overhang to cloud the acoustic. This is especially important in an album like this one, filled as it is largely with percussive sounds--plucked, strummed, gently struck, or strongly pounded as the case may be. The live concert performance at the end of disc one is a bit closer than the others, but it, too, carries a fine impact.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa