Usher Hall, Edinburgh
5/5 (FIVE STARS)
How does one do justice to this recital by Ravi Shankar, the 91-year –old Indian sitar master, and one of the most influential musicians of modern times? A five star rating hardly suffices when this extraordinary concert of evening ragas was one of the most memorable and moving cultural experiences of this critic’s life.
This important event – a centrepiece of the 2011 Edinburgh International Festival’s turn towards the arts of Asia – leaves one in no doubt as to why the Indian virtuoso has left such a deep and indelible imprint upon the music of so many artists, from The Beatles to the great jazzman John Coltrane (who named his son, Ravi, after Shankar).
Although a very healthy nonagenarian, Mr Shankar displays some of the frailty one might expect with his age. Assisted by members of his carefully-selected group, he takes his place centre stage. Reunited with his sitar, however, all sense of frailty melts away. As the musicians play the opening raga – a beautiful and gentle piece – the master’s hands move on the strings with the nimbleness and speed of a much younger man.
Shankar sits among his musicians seeming like a benevolent conductor, an encouraging father and a trusted friend. Often – as in the superb duets which develop between him and each of his musicians – he is an equal with his players; but, paradoxically, he remains always the master.
As the musicologist Martin Clayton explains in his fine notes for the concert programme, ragas are not clearly-defined, time-limited compositions (as are, for example, the works of the European classical tradition) but, rather, they constitute a rich and almost infinite “system”, a set of “melodic modes” in which the musician elaborates (the connection with jazz and, therefore, with Coltrane becomes increasingly clear as the concert goes on). The extraordinary improvisatory scope of the music means that only four pieces are played in the 90-minute recital; one short work, in honour of the prankster childhood of the Hindu god Lord Krishna, and three longer, brilliantly performed improvisations.
Whether Shankar’s sitar is being echoed by the flute of Ravichandra Kulur, or playing to-and-fro with the tabla of the immense player Tanmoy Bose, this music has a powerful capacity to pass, in an instant, between the meditative and the exhilarating. To witness the master at work, and still very much in his musical prime, was, surely, the greatest privilege which this year’s Festival has to offer.
This review was originally published by The Big Issue on August 25, 2011
© Mark Brown