The Bager trio is a family trio: Jonathan Bager (flute) and his two sons Frederic (piano) and Jeremy (bassoon). It was perhaps in the fitness of things that they should begin their concert at the Kala Academy on 2 April with a composition written for another family trio. Beethoven’s trio for Piano, Flute and Bassoon, WoO 37 was written for the family of Count von Westerholt. It is a lengthy work, so we heard just the opening movement (Allegro) but enough to impress the audience about the prowess of each of the Bagers at their instrument. The Count’s daughter was Beethoven’s piano student, and the piano score was perhaps intentionally designed to challenge her to the limit. Nevertheless, at the concert Frederic was supremely in command from the outset. There are quite a few ascending runs and flourishes for both wind instruments as well which are a devil to play in terms of breath control and co-ordination, particularly for the bassoon.
Frederic returned to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 30, Op. 109 in E major, and he did so with a precocious insight and grasp of the music. His playing was lucidity itself, in a way that was at once moving, natural and true to the letter of Beethoven’s score. He had the audience in the palm of his hand, and you could have heard a pin drop when he finished reverentially, in a delicious pianissimo that merged imperceptibly into silence before the inevitable applause.
The trio then played Beethoven’s Variations on Folksongs Op. 107. These were actually scored for flute (or violin) and piano, but Jonathan wrote out a part for bassoon by doubling notes from either the flute or piano from the original score. It succeeded in adding depth to the bass register without altering the “familiar, easy and slightly brilliant style” that George Thomson, the Scottish editor who had commissioned them, had intended. Beethoven’s clumsy control of his finances often led him to be rather mercenary in his acceptance of commissions (although he could also haughtily decline a lucrative offer if he felt his pride had been hurt), so this composition is perhaps not his finest hour. Nevertheless it shows off his almost effortless command of the variation form, which he took perhaps to its zenith with his Diabelli variations just a few years later.
The second half of the programme began with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita no. 6 in E minor BWV 830. This is the last of his set of six harpsichord suites published as Clavier-Übung I. It is a long work, in seven movements or ‘dances’(Toccata, Allemanda, Corrente, Air, Sarabande, Tempo di Gavotte, Gigue). Here Frederic took his time over the music in a measured rendition that was thought through, played whole. We heard carefully judged articulation, all within a fluent larger rhythm, that lent extra point and shape to a phrase, a group of phrases, and an entire musical paragraph. Everything flowed from the logic of the line. There was dance and reverie, clarity and form, and digital brilliance. This was glorious music, and there wasn’t a second where we weren’t aware of that fact.
Jonathan had his moment in the sun, much like Undine who is the subject of Carl Reinecke’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, Op. 167. This four-movement work is musically onomatopoeic in its idiomatic writing which depicts the water-nymph’s carefree life in the underwater depths, and then her doomed romance on land with a mortal in her quest for an immortal soul (surely there’s a parable hidden here somewhere?). Jonathan brilliantly articulated the cascading runs, swirling arpeggios and brought to the fore the instrumental colours and expressive nuances and emotions ranging from playfulness to love, passion, pathos, fury and despair.
The last work on the programme by Gaetano Donizetti brought the trio together again. Although an early work, it had all the features that would mark Donizetti in later life as an operatic composer of the highest order: a dramatic “ta-dah” entrance, coloratura flourishes and generous injections of humour. The wind instruments had free rein to strut their stuff, while the piano bubbled merrily away like a fountain in an Italian piazza.
The encore piece was a delightful nocturne by the Russian composer Cesar Cui.
The bassoon evoked a lot of interest among children backstage, and those who lingered long enough were treated to a vigorous rendition of “The Teddy-Bears’ Picnic” by the American composer John W. Bratton.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Go India on 10 April 2013)