Nishatl Khan, Aldeburgh Festival, Suffolk ★★★★

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Sunday June 25, 2017

From The Telegraph

Nishatl Khan, Aldeburgh Festival, Suffolk ★★★★
By:Ivan Hewett

A half-century ago, the West became aware of the great classical music traditions of India, thanks to ardent proselytisers such as Ravi Shankar. Buoyed by hippie culture, the deep-toned Indian lute, or sitar, conquered the world. Then fusion came along, and various Indian forms of the urban pop we call World Music, and the noble classical traditions of India dipped into obscurity once again.

So the appearance of sitar maestro Nishat Khan at the Aldeburgh Festival had a faintly nostalgic ring. Khan is a scion of a great Indian dynasty of musicians, and is determined to keep the flame alive. Not content to give a single performance, he gave three, in each one playing pieces appropriate to the time of day, just as they have done for centuries at music festivals in India. They cast a deep spell.

The two players of tabla, the pair of small drums, came on first, bowing left and right, and the player of the plucked drone instrument, the tanpura. Then Khan himself appeared, in immaculate white. He graciously welcomed his fellow players, and as he began to unfold the raga (a collection of melodic phrases within a particular scale), the other three exchanged appreciative looks at some particularly extravagant bit of improvisation.

All this was familiar from any concert of Indian classical music. What made it special was Khan’s way of giving an ecstatic, yearning quality to the melodic line. He would bend a particular note by pulling on the string, help its flight up into the cool setting of Orford Church with a gesture of the hand and a glance upward, and a look round to the other players as if to say, “that was beautiful, no?” One might have expected a raga suitable for a hot Indian afternoon to be slow and sultry, but this one felt more innocently meditative, with an almost bluesy quality.

The transition to the more rhythmicised section of the composition, the gradual rise and fall of rhythmic excitement, was followed by another rising curve, this time with the two tabla players Hanif Dewaka and Shariq Mustafa – all this was brilliantly handled. Only the final peroration seemed to arrive slightly too soon.

The final concert, based on an evening raga, was more completely satisfying. Khan seized on the flattened note in the scale and filled it with huge pathos, finding a myriad different ways to approach it and then part from it. The intensity was almost unbearable, but Khan found room for humour too, slipping in a quotation from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra had played earlier the same evening. As with his earlier concert, Khan let us down gently with a second piece based on a folk-like melody, which was as moving in its innocence as the stormily tragic piece we’d just heard. IH

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