Dr Lakshminarayana SUBRAMANIAM (b. 1947)
Concerto for Indian Violin and Tuba (2016) [33:35]
Journey (1987) [10:01]
Eclipse (2010) [7:45]
A Tribute to Bach (1987) [6:18]
Dr Lakshminarayana Subramaniam, Ambi Subramaniam (Indian violin)
Řystein Baadsvik (tuba)
Kavita Krishnamurti (vocals)
hulipala Srirama Murthy (mridangam (Indian drum))
Toms Mikāls (keyboard)
Trondheim Symphony Orchestra/Jaakko Kuusisto
rec. 2016/17, Olavshallen, Trondheim, Norway; Sound Division Studios, Riga, Latvia
Reviewed in stereo and surround.
BIS BIS2273 SACD [58:35]
Cards on the table time: I’m not naturally drawn to albums that are these days described by the ghastly word ‘crossover’ (formerly known as ‘fusion’), even less so to those using the completely overused word ‘Journey’ as a title (a word all-too-often applied in some pseudo-spiritual sense). But frankly, the very idea of a collaboration between the arguably the greatest living Indian violinist, a fine Scandinavian tuba player and the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra seems so weird on paper that one simply cannot resist. And while the music here is unlikely (at least for those who listen to a lot of Bruckner or Mahler) to draw the very deepest levels of contemplation, inner questioning or soul-searching, I can certainly confirm the sounds here are complex, exotic, often danceable and at times dizzyingly beautiful. The musicianship is also unquestionably first-rate, while Dr. Subramaniam’s compositions seem to my ears at least more structurally convincing and emotionally involving than previous encounters with this type of project – I’m specifically thinking of Ravi Shankar’s two concertos for sitar and the symphony he composed for his daughter Anoushka and the LPO shortly before his death.
Dr. Subramaniam (in this case ‘Dr.’ refers to medical training) has been dubbed “the Paganini of Indian classical music”. He has devoted a lifetime to the global promotion of Indian violin music, not just in its purest form but in many collaborations with Western musicians, notably Menuhin, Grappelli, Stevie Wonder and George Harrison to name but four. He has provided music for Western-sourced film and theatre projects involving the likes of Peter Brook, Bernardo Bertolucci and inevitably Ismail Merchant and James Ivory.
This unlikely collaboration with the tubaist Řystein Baadsvik came about through the Norwegian’s appearance at Dr. Subramaniam’s Lakshminarayana Global Music Festival in 2014. The encounter ultimately begat this recording project, which given the rather singular characteristics of the instruments involved perhaps ranks as the most unusual of Dr. Subramaniam’s long career. The Concerto and A Tribute to Bach on this disc both involve the excellent Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the endlessly versatile (and curious) Finn Jaakko Kuusisto. Of the two other couplings, the title track is an arrangement of a duet originally written for Yehudi Menuhin to perform with the composer – here it is given by a quartet of the two principals plus Indian drum (the atmospheric mridangam) and keyboard. The briefer Eclipse is a raga featuring the ravishing vocals of Kavita Krishnamurti, a legendary performer of some 15,000 (!!) songs over the years. She is also Dr Subramaniam’s wife.
The opening gesture of the Concerto’s first movement incorporates a bell, harp and strings and conveys epic, widescreen cinematography. This is not faint praise as this is a truly memorable and exotic theme. The tune is intrinsically flexible and lends itself to any number of melodic, harmonic and most obviously rhythmic variants, which is perhaps as well because it provides the raw materials for the whole movement, and even returns in the finale. While these variations proceed quite naturally, Dr. Subramaninian leaves gaps for solos or duos, with or without percussion. While some of these interludes appear to be improvised, others are more fully integrated into the structure so that the music always comes back to the epic theme. The central movement involves more languid and melancholy content but again it more than holds the attention despite its cinematic gait. This new theme is at first presented by the orchestra and underlined by Baadsvik’s tuba. The rich orchestration amplifies the Indian provenance of this music and is gloriously captured by BIS production stalwarts Ingo Petry and Fabian Frank. Roughly half-way through the movement there is a break for a breathtaking solo by Subramanian accompanied by the mridingam. This solo eventually assimilates the shape of the main theme, prior to the movement’s final moments when the rest of the orchestra and Baadsvik’s tuba return, adding florid ornamentation. By this time it struck me that the combination of Indian violin and tuba was not as crazy as it looked when I saw the BIS release schedule! The finale starts in a faster, more obviously Eastern dance-like vein, again the distinctive flavours of the mridangam are prominent. Despite the lush exotica of the instrumental sounds, the formal structure of this music possibly owes more to conventional Western classical music than the other single movements on this disc;, at least that seems to be the case up until the huge climax at 4’48; this triggers a delightful tuba cadenza from Baadsvik which projects beautifully controlled lyricism on the one hand and didjeridu-like percussive sounds on the other. Dr. Subramaniam then presents his ornate and wild solo, supported once more by the mridangam. I suggest listeners will struggle to avoid tapping their feet at this juncture. As the violin part becomes more rapid and intensifies it eventually elides seamlessly with into the heroic theme of the first movement, somewhat inevitably, which both soloists accompany until the work’s conclusion.
I suspect this colourful concerto may prove to be too obviously cinematic to many of the classical purists out there, but I have to say the quality of the musicianship, the glowing (never too garish) colours of the extended orchestra, and most obviously the sensational SACD sound quite won me over. I was certainly surprised by how much I enjoyed repeating the experience of hearing this work – although after four hearings I’ve probably had my fill for the time being.
The three shorter works provide agreeable stylistic contrasts. Journey starts with a multi-hued web of sound before evolving into a really catchy, violin-led tune, There are plenty of opportunities for improvisation and solo breaks, notably for the Latvian keyboard player Toms Mikāls (whose jazzy stylings work surprisingly well in this context) and for Dhulipala Srirama Murthy on the mridangam. The Journey concludes in an iridescent sunset of sound. The first half of Eclipse is dominated by Kavita Krishnamutrthi’s extraordinary and otherworldly vocals, this to my mind makes it the most obviously Indian of all these pieces. Krishnamurthi’s singing is mesmeric – one is almost disappointed when she stops and the tuba enters in the middle with darker material. When the violin enters it’s almost a ghostly shadow of the voice. Eclipse is deceptively still and profound. A Tribute to Bach which concludes the disc again features the fine Trondheim orchestra, and perhaps involves the most rhythmically complicated music on the disc, as well as Dr. Subramaniam’s son Ambi on a second violin. I don’t think the piece quotes Bach directly – rather his spirit hovers elusively around it, perhaps most obviously in its final few bars.
Listeners really need to hear this disc for themselves, both for the superb musicianship of all involved in its creation and especially for the spellbinding engineering. Great as it sounds through two speakers, I would argue that spectacular musical collaborations such as this are best appreciated in surround – it’s almost what the medium was invented for. While I’m sure naysayers will be suspicious of the artistic merits of this unusual cross-pollination I for one believe curious souls should approach this disc with an open mind. This is ultimately wonderfully played, richly textured music that appeals directly to the senses and on those terms it is resoundingly successful. I warmly commend it to all, especially to those whose lives need a bit more colour. And hats off to BIS for taking the gamble.