Budget-line repackagings of groups of earlier recordings, easy on the wallet though they may be, often leave one with the feeling that something has been lost: the immediacy of a new recording, the sense that there was a compelling reason to record certain music at a certain time. EMI's new double-CD collection of Ravi Shankar's works including Western instruments, however, is one of the exceptions, for it adds a great deal even to the conversation carried on by those who have paid attention to the career of the man widely considered modern-day India's greatest musician. The attraction here, in a nutshell, is that this CD set brings together music recorded between 1967 and 1982, much of it only sporadically available up to now. There are two concertos for Shankar's sitar (a large Indian lute with sympathetically resonating strings) and orchestra, plus works he wrote for collaborations with violinist Yehudi Menuhin and flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal. For purposes of comparison, there's also one performance by Shankar alone.
With several examples at hand, the listener can get a feel for the ways in which a great mind wrestled with the substantial problem of combining the Indian and European musical languages. All of these pieces are Indian in essence; each one is a realization of an Indian raga, a complex concept that denotes a combination of pitch selection, preexisting melodic formula, mood, philosophy, and more. They're Western-flavored Indian pieces, not Indian-flavored Western pieces. That said, Shankar had spent much of his life in the West and had a variety of sources on which to draw in making Western instruments sound Indian, including various modal tonalities, a century's worth of orientalisms (check out the rather French sound of the opening Morning Love for flute and sitar), and, perhaps, "Within You Without You" and the other Beatles songs that resulted from the Fab Four's study with Shankar. The two concertos are quite different from each other; the first one works up to broader climaxes as the music is handed off from orchestra to sitar and back again, but the second combines sitar and orchestra more delicately. The inclusion of bongo drums in place of the Indian tabla in the first concerto is but one of many subtle ways Shankar blurs the boundaries between two very distinct musical realms; another flows from the expert handling of the orchestra's percussion section in the first concerto in general and in the fascinating writing for tympani and glockenspiel in the last movement in particular. EMI's remastering job fuses recordings diverse in time and place into a coherent whole. If you've ever been drawn into the fascinating question of how and to what extent musical fusion is really possible, this double CD is a must-have document.