Calcutta, in its heyday, was a focal point of western classical music in India, a trend that continued until the late 1970s, when our most accomplished performers and musical leaders moved elsewhere. World-class concerts since then have been few and far between, so that the recent concert at the new Goethe Institute in Calcutta, by Bogdan Jianu (cello), Burkhard Maiss (viola), Martin Ney (flute) and Markus Placci (violin) was of historical importance — utterly flawless, it was fully felt by the performers, and completely conveyed to the audience. All the usual pitfalls in intonation and coordination being non-existent, one could relax into the pleasure of appreciation — the phrasing, the superb dynamics and most of all, the fact that every piece of music was played as a continuous story, a web of enchantment into which the audience were skillfully woven.
It is hard to overstate the accomplishments of every member of this quartet. Burkhard Maiss, a founding member of the acclaimed Jacques Thibaud Trio Berlin, is originally a violin player but played the viola at this concert with consummate ease. Bogdan Jianu, also a member of the Thibaud Trio, has played with major artistes such as Menachem Pressler; Markus Placci, based at the Boston Conservatory, has won prestigious prizes such as the Brahms Preis; while (German Ambassador to India) Martin Ney combines a career as a top-ranking diplomat with that of a world-class flautist with an admirable lightness of being. Special mention must also be made of the superb aural design of the new auditorium at the Goethe Institut, which has gifted long-deprived audiences in Calcutta with acoustics that are perfect for chamber music. The programme featured two Mozart Flute Quartets in C and D major respectively (1777), Beethoven’s String Trio in G major (1798) and Schubert’s String Trio in B flat (1816), all written when their respective composers were in their twenties, with each work separated from its forerunner by a couple of decades. The spirit of Mozart, however, permeated them all: Beethoven wrote his Trio a few years after being taught by Mozart, and Schubert’s Trio was written in explicit homage to Mozart.
Mozart’s Flute Quartets were composed at a time of great professional turbulence: he wrote them for a commission to support himself in a period of constant unemployment, all the while hating the indignity of the arrangement. Despite this, and as often with Mozart, the quartets show no sign of this torment, serving up only an unending joyousness to the listener. The concert began with Mozart’s Flute Quartet in C, whose authenticity is sometimes (surprisingly) questioned. In the first movement, Allegro, the strings quite literally played second fiddle to the flute, which carried the blithe melody line. The insouciant main theme of the second and concluding Movement, Andantino con variazioni, had hints of Papageno’s flute solos in Mozart’s The Magic Flute; in the variations that followed, flute and strings were equal partners in truly delightful ensemble playing. Beethoven’s String Trio in G major, written just after the onset of his deafness, has four movements: Adagio-Allegro con brio, Adagio ma non tanto e cantabile, Scherzo – Allegro and Presto.
The first movement, with its jagged progressions, silences and dynamical contrasts, looked ahead to Beethoven’s Late Quartets, the absence of a second violin in the Trio helping to replicate the starkness of the latter. The plaintive melancholy of the Adagio ma non tanto e cantabile gave way to the defiant cheerfulness of the Scherzo-Allegro, while the Presto was played with brio and an almost unbelievable virtuosity. Overall, this piece showcased the amazing dynamical range of the performers — their sforzandi were quintessentially Beethoven, executed with a rare spontaneity — no less than their vast emotional range. Schubert’s unfinished String Trio in B flat consists of a single movement, Allegro. Written when he was only nineteen, it is a blend of Mozartian classicism and Schubert’s own characteristic outpourings of melody; the work was very intelligently interpreted by the performers, who were able to capture the serene simplicity that is at the heart of Schubert’s musical genius. The Flute Quartet in D is unquestionably Mozart’s finest work in this genre, allocating the flute to a concerto-like importance. The work is in three movements, Allegro, Adagio and Rondo. The lilt of the opening Allegro, led by the flute, was commendably phrased, while the wistfulness of the Adagio arose from a lovely, sustained flute cantabile against the hushed pizzicati of the strings. The theme of the concluding Rondo, with its descending scales, conveyed a sense of resolution, a sense that all was well with the world. The musicians obliged an appreciative audience with a Mozart encore.