Sunday, May 8, 2016

Dr. L. Subramaniam: Three Ragas for Solo Violin

This is another stellar release in the "Indian Classical Masters" series from Nimbus Records, issued in 1991, of the beautiful and technically superior work of violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam coming out of the Carnatic music tradition of southern India.

Subramaniam was a child prodigy, giving his first solo violin performance at the age of six, and mastered not only the indigenous music of his homeland, but also received a master's degree in Western classical music.  He has composed music that fuses the Indian and western forms with his hybrid works performed throughout Europe, the United States and in India.

Obviously, the violin, as a western instrument, came late to India, being introduced, according to the informative liner notes in the early 1800s, though its use as a solo instrument has come in the post-World War II era.

The three ragas performed here are ranging from 20 to 25 minutes in length, giving Subramaniam the fullest opportunity to develop the melodic elements of the pieces and then to employ a great variety of improvised variations, accompanied by the tambura (drone) of Narendra Kotiyan.  Throughout, Subramaniam's playing is gorgeous, complex and rich with often thrilling technical displays of virtuosity performed with great precision and control, but also emotionalism.

As explained by Dr. John Marr, Carnatic music (which has been featured here before), has seven degrees in an octave with a variety of talas, or time measures, employed.  There are six dozen scales, or melakartas, in the tradition that are formed from the basis of six patterns that refer to hours and minutes and then  the augmentation of these.  Half come from the "hour and minute" examples and the other half from the augmented melakartas.

Carnatic music revolves around religious pieces called kirtana and kriti and the soloist is known for how they improvise from the basic melodic themes of these songs and it was the vocal work that was the basis for traditional Carnatic music.  This was highlighted in the previous posting on this blog of a great album by Ramnad Krishnan.

For many western listeners, these lengthy pieces can be a challenge, but this listener has found, in twenty-five years of enjoying Indian classical music, that having the drone almost as a meditative "bottom" and then treating the soloist as someone developing the western classical notion of "variations on a theme" while waiting eagerly for those virtuosic displays of rapid runs and technical gymnastics is a good way to approach the music.

Ultimately, there is something very meditative in listening to Indian classical music, whether from the Hindustani or Carnatic traditions--that approaching it as a continuous experience that is less dependent on time as it is on development of the melodic themes by improvisational variation makes the music more emjoyable.  Dr. L. Subramanian is a masterful performer and this recording is another excellent recording from Nimbus, which has a large catalog of Indian classical music.

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