Woodwind recitals in Goa are like buses. You wait and wait for one to come along, and then three of them arrive at the same time!
Goa was fortunate to be a pit stop on the whirlwind South Asian tour of the Arirang Trio d’Anches (‘reed’ or woodwind trio) featuring Jörg Schneider (oboe); Steffen Dillner (clarinet); Philipp Zeller bassoon.
There were two themes underlying their concert: transcriptions and variations of arias and melodies from popular operas; and specific compositions for woodwind trio by French composers who wrote expertly for this genre.
The concert began with Five Pieces for Wind Trio by Jacques François Antoine Ibert (1890-1962). His mastery in wind writing shines through all five of these quintessentially French cameo pieces, short dazzling movements alternating with slightly longer languid ones. The last movement ‘Allegro quasi marziale’ is tongue-in-cheek, as it is not remotely martial in character.
Beethoven’s teacher Neefe had made arrangements for his young gifted pupil to travel to Vienna to learn from the great Mozart. Sadly Beethoven must have had just a few weeks at the maximum in Vienna in 1787 before his mother’s illness (tuberculosis) compelled him back to Bonn. The brief encounter and the death of Mozart a few years later in 1791 left a lasting impact, and Beethoven wrote many variations on themes from Mozart’s operas. The variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ (“There we will give each other our hands”, the duet between the adulterous Don Giovanni and Zerlina from Mozart’s 1787 opera Don Giovanni) were written by Beethoven in C major, originally for two oboes and cor anglais. The theme is played by the oboe, and 8 extremely inventive variations and a coda follow.
The next work, trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon by Ange Flégier (1846-1927) was a revelation to me. A relatively obscure composer to the rest of the world, he is highly regarded in his home country and by the wind community. The four-movement trio has a turbulent, agitated beginning in a minor key, and the next movement is an oasis of calm in an otherwise extremely ever dynamic, onward-pushing work.
The second half of the programme was devoted entirely to the opera. The first piece on offer was the contemporary bassoonist-composer Alexandre Ouzonoff’s arrangements of highlights from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore. This arrangement required the use of the A clarinet as well as B flat clarinet. In three movements, the work opened with the famous ‘Anvil chorus’ which took some inventive writing when reduced to just three instruments.
Lastly, there was another nod to Mozart, with arrangements of a hit parade of solo arias, duets, terzettos and even a quintet from his landmark opera ‘Die Zauberflöte’ (The Magic Flute). I was informed that this charming arrangement was by a contemporary of Mozart, one Alexander Novotny, about whom there seems to be very little information. Nevertheless, the part writing is brilliant, and captures the spirit of the music and of the story really well. There were several melodies that particularly stood out: Papageno’s aria ‘Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja’, the show-stopping aria of the Queen of the Night ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen’, and the grand Finale ‘Es lebe Sarastro, Sarastro soll leben!’ The Queen of the Night aria is a devil to sing, and made huge demands on the trio, in terms of digital dexterity, technique and breath control. The finale and indeed the other Sarastro aria ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ exploited beautifully the rich, expressive nether regions of the bassoon register.
One runs out of superlatives in attempting to describe the playing of this gifted young trio. The range of colours, tone, dynamics, and expression, the quasi-athletic technical hurdles tackled with aplomb, and the aural illusion that one was actually listening to more than three players, all made for one literally breath-taking performance.
The hope expressed at the concert, that it would inspire our youth to take up a woodwind instrument is a noble one. But this is our conundrum: even if a young heart were set afire by a desire to do this, even if one procured the instrument, who would teach it? This is not a rhetorical question, but one that has to be seriously pondered if we really wish to make headway in this direction. These instruments require one-on-one instruction, and in the short term at least, one will have to import such teachers in order to create a solid pedagogical tradition in our country.
(An edited version of this article was published on 15 April 2015 in the Navhind Times Goa India)