Art for Arties’ Sake – Promoting Western Classical Music in Mumbai

IndiaIndia Arties Festival India: Karen Vourc’h (soprano), Olivier Patey (clarinet), Emmanuel Christien (piano), Hugues Borsarello (violin), Diet Tilanus (violin), Marie Chilemme (viola), Gauthier Herrmann (cello); Experimental Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, 13.3.2012 (JSM).

Fauré: Clair de Lune
Debussy: Clair de Lune
Il pleure dans mon coeur
Hahn: L’heure exquise
Sibelius: Luonnotar
Schubert: Der Hirt auf dem Felsen
Weber: Clarinet Quintet
Chausson: Chanson Perpétuelle

Photo Courtesy: National Centre for the Perfroming Arts

Arties Events is an international initiative by the cellist Gauthier Herrmann to spread an awareness of western classical music in countries where it is not indigenous. They are based in Pune, India and their Festivals of chamber music are held twice a year (March and November) in various locales, spanning the length and breadth of this country. Now in its ninth “edition,” the Festival included three performances in Mumbai of which this reviewer attended the first.

The program was unusual, consisting of music for soprano, piano, clarinet and string quartet in various combinations. Indeed, some of it had probably never been performed in this city before. It was thus of great interest to those jaded by predictable choices in chamber music programming.

The concert began with a group of French mélodies by Fauré, Debussy and Hahn, all settings of poems by Paul Verlaine. In these, soprano Karen Vourc’h showed a keen affinity for the idiom but was often inaudible below the stave at the end of a phrase, owing to inadequate breath-support. Pianist Emmanuel Christien offered richly pointed accompaniment, underscoring the subtle harmonies in the music.

“Luonnotar” by Sibelius, in the original, pre-orchestrated version for voice and piano, was next and here Ms Vourc’h gave a thrilling performance, utterly secure in her vocalism, with unflinching high notes. However, she missed conveying the mystery of the closing pages depicting the wonder of creation. Mr. Christien, on the other hand, began with the right air of atmosphere in the tremulous, hushed piano introduction but was no surrogate orchestra….though he whipped-up a respectable sea-storm in the work’s central climax.

Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” ended the program’s first half where Vourc’h and Christien were joined by clarinetist Olivier Patey, familiar to Mumbai audiences from his recent appearance here with the Mahler Chamber Soloists (see review). His phrasing was exquisite, sensitively dovetailing with the soprano. Ms Vourc’h was assured and even from top to bottom of the very wide range demanded by this song, the octave-plus leaps posing no problems. She did not, however, seem so comfortable with the German language nor the coloratura which was somewhat approximate. Also, near the end of the song’s middle section where the shepherd bemoans his lot, there is a wonderful transformation into the major key at the words Die Herzen es zum Himmel zieht mit wunderbarer Macht (surely the dying Schubert’s acceptance of Divine Will, depicted in music of great beauty and serenity) where her coloring was more anxious than spiritual.

Post-interval, Mr. Patey returned with string quartet, proving himself well up to the virtuosic demands made of his instrument in Weber’s Clarinet Quintet. For instance, the upward runs in the Adagio were almost perfectly mirrored in their pianissimo “echoes”; and the intricate passagework in the finale was, quite literally, breathtaking. But his tone tended to harden while playing forte above the stave and the soft, impish figures in the Menuet were sometimes imprecise and barely audible.

The work has often been criticised as being more a concerto for clarinet accompanied by string quartet, rather than a truly symbiotic piece of chamber music, but the performance often disproved this, for example, during the trenchant dialogue between Mr. Patey’s clarinet and Gauthier Herrmann’s cello.

Finally, Ms Vourc’h joined the string quartet along with Mr. Christien at the piano for an impassioned rendering of Chausson’s Chanson Perpétuelle. They made a superb ensemble, soprano and piano blending seamlessly with the quartet (though Marie Chilemme’s viola could have had more presence) and the performance seemed deeply felt by all, quite moving in its intensity and building to a cathartic climax.

In sum, the concert was a worthy, out of the ordinary start to another Arties Festival, auguring well for more to come.

Jiten S. Merchant