Over two evenings in the sultry month of November the NCPA presented high quality and substantial chamber music. It was the much anticipated arrival of the Artie’s Festival for its 22nd edition in the country. Their larger than life playing youthful vivacity charmed the Mumbai audience which reciprocated with much appreciation.
On Monday 19th the programme included two warhorses of the repertoire: the Brahms Piano Trio no.2 and Dvorak’s” American” String Quartet.
Brahms’ second Trio is a late work (Op.87). It was composed between 1880 and 1882 receiving its premiere in a music evening in Frankfurt. The first Piano Trio is a sprawling work full of youthful melodic content and vigour. The second Trio in C major is much shorter and cogent a work. He began writing this for his pianist friend Clara Schumann the wife of the composer Robert. It was a difficult period in Clara’s life as Robert Schumann was incarcerated in an asylum after he attempted suicide by throwing himself in the Rhine. Brahms completed the Trio while spending some time on holiday in Bad Ischl in the Austrian Alps. The Trio consists of four movements opening and closing in C major Allegros both in sonata form.
The second movement in the relative minor key of A is an Andante theme and variations and the third a scherzo and trio in C minor. The music is brimming with characteristic endless melody and well argued virtuosity with the piano playing a dominant part. Played by husband and wife team of Gauthier and Mathilde Herrmann on the string and joined by Jean-Michel Dayez on piano it made a splendid start to the evening.
The second piece was Korngold’s neo-romantic song from his opera Die Tote Stadt from the Suite Op.23 for two violins cello and piano left hand. Gauthier indulged himself in the lush romantic outpouring of Marietta’s Lied basking in the glorious tone of his cello. It was an attractive interlude between the two main works.
Dvorak’s String Quartet no.12 Op.96 concluded the programme. Dvorak wrote a large body of chamber music of which the best known are the Dumky Trio, the Piano Quintet (Op.81) (scored unusually with double bass obbligato like Schubert Trout Quintet) and this String Quartet. The latter was inspired by Native American and Afro-American folk music (as he had done in his native Bohemia). This was played by the above mentioned two string players with second violin Alix Catinchi and Cecile Grassi viola. Unfortunately, though the playing was immaculate the balance between the lower strings and two violins was a trifle misjudged.
If anything the second evening was even better. The programme promised three stalwarts of the chamber music repertoire spanning some two hundred years. It was all delivered immaculately with style and panache and the temperatures rose towards the end as the audience burst out in appreciation.
First on the programme was Dvorak’s Piano Quartet no.2 op.87. This Quartet written some 14 years after his first Piano Quartet was premiered in Prague in 1890. It is a very engaging and melodious work rich in Bohemian folk tunes like the cimbalom-like piano writing in the third movement and was composed in an inspirational flash which surged easily upon him. It was written on the behest of the publisher Simrock who was introduced to Dvorak by Brahms. Both composers wrote in a neo-classical but heavily romantic world of music specially influenced by nature and vindicated the choice of two juxtaposed programmes of these two great composers’ legacies of chamber music.
Beethoven’s Variations for Piano Trio in E flat major op.44 is an early work which had its origins even before his op.1 Trios when the composer was just 22. The tune was a rather flimsy and banal aria from an obscure opera he heard while living in Bonn. The 14 variations that follow are however rich in invention and virtuosity. A wonderful rendition of a work that one rarely hears.
Ending the programme was the massive five movement Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57 by Schostakovich. This is one of his best known chamber pieces written for performance by the Beethoven Quartet. It received its premiere which Schostakovich himself at the piano in the Moscow conservatoire in 1940 to much critical acclaim. It won for the composer the Stalin prize in 1941 redeeming him favour with the Regime after the debacle of his opera Lady Macbeth premiered in 1934.
It is an extraordinary and enchanting work with much music of interest given to every member of the five performers. It was played with caution thrown to the winds and left me breathless with excitement.
I sat Gauthier down to ask him a few questions to which he responded below:
FC: How and when did you get the idea of starting an annual chamber music festival in India. Describe the circumstances which led to the starting up of a company in India. You have come before with Quatuor Ebene and now with other distinguished musicians. What is the attraction for young French musicians for playing to audiences in this country?
GH: I first came to India in 2001, aged 20 for a cello solo recital in Pune, invited by the Poona Music Society. This first trip was something very special for me and I completely fell in love with this fantastic country. Food, people, culture, landscape, heritage… everything was calling me with open arms. After several tours (2001-2006), we decided then to organise a first edition of the Artie’s festival, scheduled in March 2008. This festival had been a huge success with 4000 people in 5 cities. During this tour, we had our first concerts at the NCPA in Mumbai. Meeting the NCPA and its chairman, my close friend Khushroo N. Suntook completely changed our project as we had found a fantastic partner. Since this moment, we are co-organising the festival, twice a year, choosing the programs, the artists etc.
Ebene quartet, Volta quartet, and many more musicians (60 different ones came since the beginning). Artie’s festival is before anything a story of friendship and curiosity.
FC: How did you adapt the repertoire to suit Indian audiences? Do you think playing of Bollywood tunes in arrangements for chamber ensemble is a result of this philosophy.
GH: Honestly we don’t try to adapt the repertoire anymore in India. After 21 editions, people know about what we are doing during the Artie’s festival and they are expecting us to bring the largest number of composers and artists. The most important thing is to always give our maximum to the audience. Every piece is well prepared and we give our full soul and energy to make it an unforgettable moment for everyone (and for us as well).
The Bollywood hits we are sometimes arranging as encores are a little gift for our faithful audience and to show to the youngsters that classical music is as funny and entertaining as pop or rock. And it’s always nice to end a concert with something very light, just to accompany you back home on a joyful note.
FC: What complete cycles have you performed. And what are your plans for the future?
GH: We have completed the complete cycle of the Beethoven string trios (2013), as well as the complete cycle of the Brahms piano quartets (2017). In March 2020, we will perform the 7 piano trios by Beethoven with the 3 cycles of variations. And of course, I still have the dream of performing the 16 quartets in one week… Let’s keep it for a later edition.