The basic purpose of this list is to select a series of Carnatic recordings which represent the art at its best, without much regard to balance or beginning appreciation. In some cases, the presentations are complicated or confusing, and so beginners are urged to feel comfortable with the Beginner's List first, which is written for that purpose. Likewise, this is not nearly a complete list, but rather a selective one. At one point, I had considered compiling online information for all or most available Carnatic CDs, but the simple fact is that I do not have the individual energy to carry out such a project. Many other items are listed in the Carnatic index already, and if anyone is interested in carrying through a more comprehensive project here, I am open to the possibility of collaboration.
The conflict between the abysmal production quality of the best Carnatic performance releases and their musical merit is a rather challenging aspect with regard to preparing a selective list of this type. It might be hoped that more dedicated and well-produced recordings will appear on major labels, but that is not happening yet. There is also the factor of Carnatic music as an improvisational idiom, and the relative recentness of studio work in general. Why be selective at all? The simple answer is that I want a manageable list which the enthusiast can reasonably hear in total.
My intention has been to select recordings which are actually fully, or nearly-fully, enjoyable as opposed to those which are more of documentary value. There is certainly something to be said for documenting the art of older musicians, but if the recording is so noisy, distorted, and lacking in major works to be compelling today, then it must be considered in a separate category. I want to re-emphasize contemporary enjoyment in this list, and so have added more extensive comments surrounding the individual recordings. Even within that context, I have selected primarily the art of the older generation, simply because I frequently find it more satisfying. In that sense, although I am not listing recordings which are primarily of documentary value, I am also not listing merely "good" performances with excellent production values, but rather only those that are more compelling for one reason or another.
The remaining part of the project is to make more extensive comments in the individual CD files, and these remarks will appear or become more elaborate as I have the inclination. Although it may be tempting to write some sort of standard "review" in a mechanical way, my intent is to wait until I have something specific to say. In many cases, the reasons for selecting a recording are more or less obvious in the context of the list.
To some other comments on the CD information.
Vocal renditions are certainly the core of Carnatic music, with the instrumentalists using the same compositions as frameworks for their recitals as well. The voice is completely central and yields the most compelling interpretations. I will always prioritize vocal performances in this list, but especially here, there is a necessary ambivalence due to the terrible production quality of so much of the best musical material. There are very few Carnatic vocal recordings issued on significant international labels, and this is the area of the list I would most like to see expanded, especially with quality CD reissues of some other artistes of considerable merit from decades past.
Semmangudi R. Srinivasa Iyer (1908-2003) was long considered the most distinguished living Carnatic vocalist. He received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award, the highest of the Madras Music Academy, in 1947. His performances were also a touchstone for my own appreciation of Carnatic music. I originally had trouble getting past his vocal tone and sinus problems, but have since become increasingly enthralled by his renditions. His ability to project the nuances of a raga was almost unparalleled, as was his musical imagination. His style itself owes a great deal to that of the nadhaswaram, an outdoor wind instrument, and one can hear its echoes in his interpretations. He managed to capture a feeling of excitement, especially in swara singing, without becoming superficial. His primary guru was legendary vocalist Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer (1896-1970), recipient of the Sangeetha Kalanidhi himself in 1945.
Semmangudi's discography on CD is non-negligible, especially relative to those of many other important artistes. The cited recordings are all of distinctive merit, often showing different facets of his work. None is of the highest production quality, but the first two are among the better ones in the context of this list, while the next two are competently produced studio reissues.
Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890-1967) is given credit for establishing the present Carnatic concert format, in terms of the construction of programs and the sequence of treatment given to pieces. His style is quite prototypical in this sense, and is based on his famous "pyramid" comment about the voice being broad in the base and pointed toward the higher registers. He received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1938. K. V. Narayanaswamy (1923-2002) was the most distinguished disciple of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar for some years, and went on to make a name for himself throughout the Carnatic music world. His style of presentation was leisurely and precise, with a good mix of clarity and spaciousness. He received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1986.
The recording of Ariyakudi is not very impressive in terms of sound, but some quality ideas do show through. That for KVN is certainly one of the best overall recordings in the list, with exemplary sound and some wider availability at one point. KVN remained relatively under-recorded, although he was active until his death.
As a complex and subtle art, Carnatic music boasts numerous brilliant scholars among its most distinguished practitioners. Even in past decades, many of these men held posts at American universities at one time in their lives, including S. Ramanathan (1917-1988) and Ramnad Krishnan (1918-1973), both affiliated with Wesleyan University. Each was an important and knowledgeable vocalist, with an uncommon clarity of presentation. Ramnad Krishnan produced two of the important early Carnatic vocal LPs in the West for Nonesuch records. Dr. Ramanathan received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1985.
The remastering of the classic Ramnad Krishnan LP is somewhat disappointing for many listeners, but it is certainly adequate and among the most widely available Carnatic releases. The first recording, of valuable & unusual material by S. Ramanathan, was for a long time his only CD release and an interesting anthology. The recording of Dikshitar's Navagraha cycles on the planets was another classic LP, finally on CD. The leading young vocalist trained by S. Ramanathan is Smt. Sowmya, who has several CD recordings.
Among his teachers, Dr. S. Ramanathan includes the legendary scholar-performer Tiger K. Varadachariar (1876-1950), principal of the Kalakshetra Music College and recipient of the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1932. A widely regarded direct disciple of "Tiger" Varadachariar was M. D. Ramanathan (1923-1984), renowned for his crisp bass voice and command of compositions in slow tempo. The brothers B. V. Raman (b.1921) & B. V. Lakshmanan (1921-1999) are also senior disciples of Tiger Varadachariar.
This recording is included primarily for its program, a thoroughly competent & traditional rendition of Thyagaraja's Pancharatna Kritis, a set which represents something of a departure for the great composer, expressing more abstract melodic concerns instead of the lyricism for which he is mostly known. They have become a centerpiece of his output, and consequently of Carnatic music as a whole.
D. K. Pattammal (1919-2009) was the middle of a triumvirate of women to establish the female voice on the Carnatic stage, and came from perhaps the most traditional background. She was discovered by Ambi Dikshitar, grand-nephew of the great composer Mutthuswamy Dikshitar, and went on to have an important career as an orthodox Hindu housewife. She is therefore in the direct line of Dikshitar's teaching, and a performer of rare rhythmic subtlety. She received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1970. D. K. Jayaraman (1928-1992) is the younger brother of D. K. Pattammal, and a distinguished artiste in the same style. He received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1990.
The first citation above is one of a few EMI reissues of DKP, and although each is somewhat problematic, includes some of the best tracks. The second consists of a live recital, perhaps with less command. The fourth citation is the one CD recording of DKJ without supporting vocalists, and shows his laya skills. Unfortunately, with DKJ, the supporting vocalists are frequently quite unappealing, and the last ctiation is one such example, although a very compelling program. A leading young vocalist in this style is Nithyasree Mahadevan.
G. N. Balasubramaniam (1910-1965) was one of the most original Carnatic voices of his generation, establishing new styles of ornament and presentation. Although known for his faster passages, his style accommodates all facets of Carnatic music. He received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1958. Although recordings do exist, his art is perhaps best appreciated in that of his disciples. They project his ideas very clearly, possess perhaps the better singing apparatus, and certainly the better recorded sound. The most distinguished disciple of GNB was M. L. Vasanthakumari (1928-1990), who was also one of the women to establish female singing in Carnatic concerts. Her combination of precision, clarity and imagination were rare, and she received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1977. Trichur V. Ramachandran (b.1946) is the youngest disciple of GNB, and went on to study with MLV after the former's death. He is one of the top touring Carnatic vocalists today, and a singer able to project his gurus' style impressively.
There are some other recordings of MLV, both doing lighter repertory, as well as various concert editions of dubious quality. These are the two major recordings of Trichur Ramachandran, and we can probably expect others of similar quality to appear as he seems to be at his peak right now. A leading young vocalist in this style is Sudha Raghunathan, a student of M. L. Vasanthakumari.
M. S. Subbulakshmi (1916-2004) was perhaps the most famous Carnatic vocalist of the twentieth century. Besides being one of the women to establish the female voice in concert, she sang many different types of music, and toured the world as an ambassador for Carnatic music. She was known both for the purity of her voice and for its agility, as well as for her impeccable manners and presence. She received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1968 and the Bharat Ratna Award in 1998.
There are many other recordings of M. S. Subbulakshmi performing a wide variety of material. The first above is a studio recording, while the second is a major live production. There are also reissues of taped concerts, radio recitals, etc. Thus far, most of the reissues do not manage to combine compelling programs & production values, although there is no real reason this cannot be achieved. They often seem aimed more at "fans" than people interested in music & interpretation itself.
Aruna Sayeeram (b.1952) is one of the youngest artistes on this list, but a representative of one of the most austere & classical styles in Carnatic music. She is a leading disciple of the distinguished scholar T. Brinda (1912-1996), winner of the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1976 and grand-daughter of the legendary Veena Dhanammal (1867-1938). Aruna Sayeeram's style is likewise direct, with a concentration on purity of tone and precise articulation.
The two recordings are among the best-produced vocal recitals on this list, and also perhaps the most widely available internationally. More CD recordings by Aruna Sayeeram have appeared of late, although the first cited was the only one available for some years. Perhaps other major recitals will appear. The latter citation, in particular, is of unique value. Both were recorded in France.
Mutthuswamy Dikshitar's Sri Kamalamba Navavaranam is one of the most impressive cycles in music, and has drawn a variety of written discussion in both India & Europe. It is a true monument of form and melody, both technically and for its extreme potency.
The vocalist S. Rajeswari is not someone with whom I am otherwise familiar. Her performances are certainly competent, and her recording worth mentioning for its program.
I expect there will be opportunities to add other citations to this list in the future, whether from older artistes who had not previously appeared on CD or from the younger artistes at the height of their powers. For even younger singers, although some of their work can be very impressive, I have thus far resisted the urge to list recordings, although I do enjoy attending their concerts. At some point, more younger singers will undoubtedly appear, but I do not feel as though there needs to be any rush to list them, especially as in many cases their recordings appear today with some frequency. Of course, there are other major vocalists whom I have not listed, simply because they do not fit my taste. This should not be seen as a condemnation, but only as an expression of stylistic preference. It is also possible that there will be a major transformation of this list, as important high-quality recordings appear to displace some of what appears now. However, there is no indication that this will happen any time soon.
The large, plucked-string veena is one of the traditional founts of Carnatic music. Many vocalists train on the veena, including the great composer Mutthuswamy Dikshitar. The instrument has a deep resonance and good precision of tone, making it suitable to the "pyramid" style of Carnatic articulation. It is also the basis for the art of thanam, unmeasured raga exposition with a continuous pulse. The veena is easily the most appealing Indian instrument to me, both for its resources and for its traditional repertory, and fortunately its discography contains several items of both good musical & technical quality.
The Karaikudi style of veena playing is perhaps one of the most distinguished lineages in Carnatic music, tracing ten significant generations. Rajeswari Padmanabhan (1939-2008) was the grand-niece of the renowned Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer (1888-1958), recipient of the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1952. She also studied directly with leading composer Mysore Vasudevacharya (1865-1961), and developed a style of compelling refinement and potency. Karaikudi Subramaniam (b.1944) is the younger brother of Rajeswari Padmanabhan and likewise the grandson of the great Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer, the eldest Karaikudi Brother.
Each of these recordings is of good production quality. The first is supposed to be the beginning of a series on the Karaikudi veena style. The latter two are on labels distributed internationally.
K. S. Narayanaswamy (1914-1999) was one of the most distinguished veena players of his generation. He accompanied Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer on a famous Auvidis LP, helped to train Aruna Sayeeram, and associated with such past luminaries as Tiger K. Varadachariar (1876-1950). He received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1979. His veena style was quite direct, yet subtle and expressive. R. Pichumani (1920-2015) was likewise from the Tanjore school of Tiruchi College, and a distinguished vainika in his own right.
Each of these recordings is of good quality, and is the only CD available by the artistes.
V. Doreswamy Iyengar (1920-1997) has been hailed by some as the greatest veena player of the later twentieth century. He is from the Mysore school and specializes especially in traditional veena-oriented technique such as thanam. His style unites an easily flowing melody with these rhythmic contours. Veena Doreswamy Iyengar received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1984.
The first program is live and somewhat one-dimensional, but deeply felt. The second is a more unusual combination of repertory, but with some very interesting items.
S. Balachander (1927-1989) was one of the most unique and traditionally innovative artistes in Carnatic music. He was basically self-taught in all areas, including both Carnatic veena and sitar. Within the basic Tanjore/Karaikudi style, he innovated a more strongly vocally-oriented technique. His technique has been called the most difficult for the veena, and depends on a close miking. Balachander is also known for his bluntness and frequently controversial opinions. At its best, his music can be very inspiring.
These recordings were made in Japan, the first being one of the very early direct digital recordings of the 1970s with a strange sound quality characteristic of the beginning of that medium. There is also a Denon recording from this era which has not reappeared. The second is among the best for sound quality and more widely available.
Chitraveena N. Ravikiran (b.1967) is one of the current generation of child prodigies in Carnatic music, learning the basic system by the age of two. His grandfather Gottuvadhyam Narayana Iyengar (d.1959) was one of the most distinguished Carnatic musicians of the generation of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. The chitraveena, sometimes called gottuvadhyam, is not the same instrument as the veena. It is similar in shape, but fretless, and played by rolling a cylinder with the left hand. Ravikiran is by far its most important performer today.
This is clearly the best studio recording by Ravikiran available today, showing a far deeper & more nuanced style than his recordings from a few years ago. Although it was recorded specifically for a major label with professional equipment, some elements could be improved.
Among the wind instruments of Carnatic music, the bamboo flute is the most-used in concert situations. It is a high pitched instrument suitable for punctuating the highest phrases, and requiring extreme breath & finger control. The instrument has not been a traditional one for the classical styles, and as in North Indian music has been adopted from the folk tradition onto the concert platform in recent decades. It has become well-established in Carnatic music, due both to suitable pitch relationships for accompanists and the fine artistes who have championed it.
T. Viswanathan (1926-2002) was one of the most distinguished exponents of the Carnatic bamboo flute, and the grandson of legendary Veena Dhanammal. He, like S. Ramanathan and other distinguished Carnatic scholars, spent time at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and was a professor there until late in his life. He was awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1988. Like Aruna Sayeeram and the vainikas listed, he is an exponent of Tanjore style. T. R. "Mali" Mahalingam (1926-1986) was perhaps the first performer to raise the bamboo flute to the level of a premier Carnatic stage instrument, based both on his technical insights and legendary improvisational prowess. He is likewise said to have been indebted to the Veena Dhanammal school.
The two recordings present definite contrast. The first is a highly polished studio rendition, whereas the second is a concert recording of energy & inspiration with some incoherencies. Especially given his immense popularity, there are still relatively few CD recordings of "Flute Mali."
Together with veena, the nadhawaram or sometimes nagaswaram is one of the traditional instrumental founts of Carnatic music. It is a loud outdoor reed instrument and can be heard everywhere during nearly every festival or event in South India. It is one of the most characteristic sounds of the country, and an instrument with a long history of association with temples and the highest Carnatic art. Adopting its continuous outdoor style of presentation to the concert platform has not been easy, and the same may be said for the CD medium. Recordings and touring artistes are relatively few given the instrument's historical importance and basic technical resources.
Sheikh Chinna Moulana (1924-1999) came from a long-established family of Muslim nadhaswaram players in Andhra. He went on to become the most distinguished performer of his generation and was awarded the Sangeetha Kalanidhi in 1998. His style is a fine combination of strength with more subtle nuance.
The recording is one of the few Carnatic recordings distributed on an international level and of the highest technical production standards. The program is somewhat unlike a more typical vocal recital.
Kadri Gopalnath (1950-2019) pioneered the use of the saxophone in Carnatic music. The instrument has proven extremely suitable for the articulation of the Carnatic style, and although difficult, one can expect it to become more prominent in the future. Kadri Gopalnath adopted many elements of the nadhaswaram style, and so this is one solution to performing this style indoors. His basic technique will also be impressive to Western saxophone players.
The recording is one of several, although it is a clear choice based on its production quality, mature technique, as well as program and concert-style presentation.
The violin has a long history in Carnatic music, more than two hundred years now, used primarily as an accompaniment to vocal recitals. The small fingerboard and lack of frets make it relatively easy to adopt to Carnatic style, and in fact earlier South Indian bowed string instruments have fallen entirely into disuse in its wake. It has become increasingly popular as a solo instrument as well, although a vocal concert will typically include substantial opportunities for the violinist to shine, and so a short list of solo presentations is appropriate here. The violin is nearly ubiquitous in the other sections of the list and so well-represented already. The exception is in veena & nadhaswaram recitals where it is not typically used.
Lalgudi G. Jayaraman (1930-2013) was one of the most distinguished Carnatic musicians of the early 21st century, and a direct disciple of the Thyagaraja lineage. He was known both for his phenomenal concert career as well as for his composing abilities. Many of his compositions are played regularly by other Carnatic artistes, vocalists & instrumentalists alike. His style has become one of the most sought-after for violin in Carnatic music, although his disciples are not confined only to violin. His firm style of bowing is especially prized, although later, he pioneered new combinations of sonority for multiple violins and consequently a more angular phrasing. Richness of sonority certainly remained a trademark.
These recordings are exceptional are exceptional among Lalgudi's discography, easily preferable to other available CDs. Both exhibit a rich lyricism and inspiration. The first citation forms (apparently) one live recital as released on two different labels, while the latter is a studio recording. Lalgudi's son Lalgudi G. J. R. Krishnan has now taken over the lead concert role for the lineage and has made recordings as well. The leading young vocalist Bombay S. Jayashri is also a student of Lalgudi Jayaraman.
M. S. Gopalakrishnan (1931-2013) is another of the three major artistes who established the violin as a solo concert instrument in the middle of this century. The Parur style of "MSG", after his father Parur Sundaram Iyer, is known especially for its rhythmic intricacy as well as the wide range of compositions which it can accommodate. MSG is also expert in the Hindustani style of performance, and is one of the performers to establish violin in the North. He received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1997.
This live recital easily stands out among available recordings on account of its program and quality. Other reissues on the EMI India label have been of good quality also. Important international releases of MSG have not been forthcoming, despite what seems to be an attractive technique for the broader stage.
The third major musician to establish the violin as a solo instrument is T. N. Krishnan (b.1928). His style is the most typical of the accompaniment style per se, and dwells especially on raga exposition. Although there are recordings, none is without its drawbacks, and TNK's accompaniment of Ariyakudi et al. above is perhaps his most impressive work. He received the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award in 1980.
When it comes to instrumental recitals, although I would have difficulty neglecting a major international release by a front-rank artiste, I tend to be more satisfied with the list as it stands. I do continue to seek out veena recordings, but primarily it is Carnatic vocal music which stands out most strongly.
To Carnatic index page.Todd M. McComb Updated: 3 November 2019