MUSIC / Free spirits: Choked by CDs, Meredith Oakes makes the case for the live experience
Thursday 27 January 1994
Indian classical music, with its basis in improvisation, is an interesting case: each concert is unique and potentially collectable. In Monday's flower-decked ceremonial circumstances, the tension between music uniquely linked to a time and a place, and music technologically multiplied, packaged and preserved, was poignant. Two low, white-draped platforms were on the stage. The big one, with its red oriental carpet, was for Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, master of the sarod. The other was for His Holiness Satguru Jagjit Singh Ji, spiritual head of the Namdhari Sikhs, a slim elder who sat listening cross- legged while an attendant ritually whisked flies away with a white horsehair switch. As Ustad Amjad Ali performed, he threw playful glances to His Holiness, seeking connoisseur approval for daring turns of phrase. To the left and right of them were the biggest black loudspeakers I've ever seen.
The amplification was too strong. The metallic bite of the scouring fingernail articulations was boosted so much that it made you flinch. Here, as in the speechmaking, which tended to equate the buying of CDs with support for all that was best in Sikh spiritual life, there was need for fine tuning.
Ustad Amjad Ali offered a suitably extrovert programme whose highlights were incredible feats of speed and percussive energy, both from the sarod and from the two tabla stars, Anindo Chatterjee and the lightning-handed Sukhvinder Singh Namdhari. The slow introduction to the dark, minor-coloured raga after the interval was rich in those curling, sighing, sliding whispers where the sarod, with its fretless metal fingerboard, excels: I would have liked more of this.
People packed the Wigmore for the Quatuor Mosaques, witnessing the absolute triumph of Haydn's cogent, whole-hearted inventiveness over the highly coloured minimalist piquancies of Boccherini (which were certainly fun). Even the playing style differed: antique short-breathed aerated scoops gave way almost irresistibly to a franker, more modern, bows-on-strings approach when Haydn stepped in. There were clean, lovely, sensitively coloured tone, sometimes over-careful tempi from the quartet and its collaborators, who included the immaculate lutenist-guitarist Jose Miguel Moreno.
The Tallis Scholars were bliss, again. Josquin's Missa ad fugam redeployed its four parts with such subtle variety that the often rhythmically plain setting never palled. Two Magnificats and a splendidly rhetorical motet Vae, vae Babylon, by Nicholas Gombert, showed single chords being harnessed for emphatic, expressive gestures, and false relations heightening the emotional crunch. Terrifying solo entries were well survived.
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