By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Two Sad Stories Of Twin Steinways

Continuing my recollections of  the insensitive and inflexible attitudes of most classical musicians from the West visiting New Delhi during the last three decades of the 20th century -- as a rule doling out some of their most beautiful music to us in ridiculously small doses, or inflicting some of their most bizarre music on us now and then, without the slightest concern for our preferences and expectations -- let me show you my reviews of a couple of piano recitals I had attended in quick succession, which said it all :- 

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fin de siecle  --  end of century (French).
Max Müller Bhavan   --  German language and cultural center. 
avant-garde  --  new and experimental, especially in the arts (French).

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New Delhi
12 September 1991

Strutting with two Steinways

For several months during the long, excruciating summer which seems to have just ended, foreign musicians did not show much inclination to visit India and New Delhi.  Whatever may be the reason, this year's summer crop of Western classical music concerts in the Capital has been the worst in recent memory. 

We therefore awaited the arrival of the Austrian Art Ensemble's piano-and-percussion quartet with extraordinary interest.  In any other circumstances, this type of visiting group would have attracted only a small gathering of serious Western-music-lovers at the India International Center.  But when it performed here last week, there was a nearly full house in the spacious Kamani auditorium.

The Austrian Art Ensemble is not constituted by a constant set of artists.  It performs music in theatrical as well as concert forms, specializing in the works of 20th-century composers, and draws musicians, dancers and actors from different sources as specifically required for any given program. 

Currently, this quartet formed by the AAE is on an Asian tour.  It consists of two pianists -- Wim Van Zutphen (who is also the AAE's founder and leader) and Christiane Austleitner -- and two percussionists :  Morkku Kronn and Horst Gunther Shenck.  Their repertoire is said to include works by composers like Bartók, Cage, Gershwin, Milhaud, Satie, Schönberg and Stravinsky.


Unlike most visiting Western musicians, these artists were generous with their time.  The concert lasted about two hours, including a 20-minute intermission -- rather an endurance record by European standards, as we perceive them here!

The first 20 minutes went off quite smoothly, because as a special gesture in the memory of Mozart -- whose bicentenary the whole world is observing this year -- the ensemble launched the concert with his Sonata in D Major for two pianos (Kv. 448).  Quite a pleasant, if plain, effort.

After that the young percussionists joined the pianists, and the proceedings suddenly acquired an abstract character, which became more and more bizarre as the concert progressed.  To start with, there was a composition called Three movements dedicated to Henne, by a young contemporary Austrian composer, Wolfgang Muthspiel (b. 1965).  As the pianos and the drums played hide-and-seek to find one another's company, we knew that we were having a strong foretaste of things to come after the intermission. 

The world owes a great debt to Béla Bartók (1881-1945) for his pioneering research and recording of Hungarian folk music ;  but as a composer he is not very well known in this part of the world.  He belonged to a class of composers who had introduced unconventional approaches in Western orchestral music before the First World War, rejecting the symphonic form with contempt and experimenting with strange manipulations of sound.  His was not 'atonal' music like Schönberg's, but it had its share of twisted harmonies which still appear strange to many people even in the West in this fin de siecle.

In his Sonata for two pianos and percussion, played by the AAE Quartet, the instruments continued to play hide-and-seek, sounding hesitant and tentative in their expressions.  As a result, the sound of the two Steinway grand pianos (lent, as the program sheet graciously acknowledged, by the Max Müller Bhavan) was rather anemic, and the drums never found even a small fraction of their potential power.

Enter the buffoon

But if the dish served at this stage was difficult to consume, it became quite inedible in the last course, which was Erik Satie's Parade for two pianos and percussion.  For apart from the strutting of the Steinways and the accompanying instruments, we had some comic effects too in this work :  the percussionists' blowing a whistle now and then, or tapping on the keyboard of a manual typewriter -- and once even clapping a cymbal on the surface of some water contained in a plastic basin (with a cellophane sheet spread on the floor, to be sure, to take care of the splashing water!).

Erik Satie (1865-1925) was an important inter-war composer in Europe, and one of the modern trend-setters.  But he has also been described as an eccentric Parisian, fond of indulging in practical jokes and deliberate buffoonery.  Listening to his PPP, one could not very well disagree!

There were many Westerners in the large gathering, and I suppose all this clowning must have meant something to some of them.  But most of the listeners seemed quite bewildered.  However, it looked rather fashionable to applaud this avant-garde music, and we were not inhospitable. 

And our generosity attracted its own reward :  for what followed was an encore (a piece specially composed for the Ensemble) which went a step further.  In this number a couple of cassette machines were added to the instruments -- some assorted noises being played now and then -- with the pianos and percussion sounding discordant notes, and all the male members of the group singing disjointedly in German.

We must sincerely thank the Austrian Embassy for taking the initiative occasionally and bringing some very fine Western music programs to this country now and then.  But we must also address some important questions to them :  (1)  What is the point of presenting this kind of music to us here in India?  Are we capable of understanding it, leave alone appreciating it?   (2) Can we hope to hear some substantial and authentic music of Mozart in the cool months to come during this sentimental year of his bicentenary?

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 New Delhi

4 October 1991

Steinway sounds like Steinway!

September started rather well for Western classical music in the Capital, after the barren summer semester.  Although the piano-percussion quartet from Austria had severely tested our nerves with its abstract 'modern' music (as reported earlier), it was quickly followed by a delightful piano recital given by a visitor from Italy, presented by the Italian Cultural Center, Delhi Music Society and the India International Center.

Alessandra Ramacci is a piano teacher in an Italian music conservatoire, and is an accomplished artist.  Her track record has not yet grown sufficiently to match her extraordinarily vivacious style.  She has obviously far to go, but she will surely go far.

It is a good thing that organizers of Western music in the Capital try hard to teach the audience proper concert manners :  among other things, by never allowing anyone to enter or leave the concert hall except during the intermission, or -- mercifully! -- between two numbers.  But it is a mistake on their part not to advise visiting foreign artists to start a recital with a couple of short pieces, to accommodate latecomers.  None of us arrives late deliberately ;  but if it happens occasionally, we don't mind standing outside for a while with a grin, waiting to be let in.  But if we have to wait all the way up to the intermission because the entire first half of the concert is consumed by a single number, then it is quite taxing -- and, if the music is good, very frustrating.

That was precisely what happened this time.  I had turned up at the IIC just a few minutes late, but had to remain outside with 20 others for more than 20 minutes, while the pianist was playing nothing less important than Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata.  That was unfair all round :  nobody should have arrived late, to be sure, but none deserved such severe punishment for the crime either.  How heartless the penalty was became apparent as soon as the recital was resumed after the intermission with Mendelssohn's Rondo Capriccioso (Op. 14)  --  for Ms. Ramacci's performance was simply brilliant, spontaneous, technically immaculate, and sparkling.  

When I said the entire first half had been taken up by the Appassionata, it would have been evident how short this concert was.  It was soon rounded off by Schumann's Carnaval (Op. 9), performed equally well.  The young pianist could certainly make a Steinway sound like a Steinway!  Still, one went home rather frustrated, not having been able to hear much more of the marvelous music. Not an unusual experience, of course!

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