The song, not the singer

Expert in French piano literatureRaj BhimaniPhoto: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Expert in French piano literatureRaj BhimaniPhoto: V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

The Forum for Teachers of Western Classical Music held a piano concert by Raj Bhimani at St. Mark’s Cathedral Auditorium. Living in New York City, this is his first visit to Bangalore, though he gave concerts at other Indian cities last year.

“When I visited India last year, reconnecting with family was very special and I intend coming back more often. I was born in California and grew up in comparative isolation, so the connectedness and warmth of people here mean a lot to me.”

Saturday’s programme consisted of groups of short works, though the mood was rather similar in the pieces of the first half. Opening with the ‘Pathetique’, one of Beethoven’s best-loved sonatas, he modulated those dramatic opening chords so that he conveyed power without undue force. He brought out the first movement’s tender lyrical qualities with great sensitivity, so that one wondered if he was going to milk the famous ‘Adagio cantible for all it was worth. He did not, but brought out all its singing beauty without emotional overload.

Certain conventions were expected to be observed in sonatas but Beethoven’s uncompromising use of the c minor key went against custom, evoking sturm und drang , too powerful and emotionally stormy for the niceties of a salon. Bhimani was equal to the Romantic emotional force as well as the tragic sonorities that characterise this sonata.

Brahms’ Piano Pieces Op.119 bring out the introspection of the composer’s later years. Their main mood of melancholy is shaded with colour, suited to Bhimani’s sympathy to that range of feelings, characterised by tender reflection rather than passion. His extremely light touch captured the contemplative mood of the Intermezzo in e minor though he sometimes failed to elicit sound from the notes he so briefly brushed. The ‘C Major Intermezzo’ was brisker but no less contemplative, exploring another mood. ‘The Rhapsody in E flat Major’ had a strong rhythmic opening, soon yielding to a most lovely melody.

The first half of the programme definitely showed Bhimani as a very sensitive player, with a predilection for lyrical melody accompanied with rhythmic gracefulness.

As his particular expertise is in French piano literature, the second half of the programme was devoted to French music. The ‘3 Preludes for Piano’ is unusual, an opus by a contemporary woman composer. His presentation of these pieces was special as he has a personal connection with the French composer, Therese Brenet. “Mark, a friend of mine who knows Therese, requested her to compose a piece for the left hand for him”. Though Ms Brenet won the highest award for a composer, she had not composed for the piano as she was put off the instrument at an early age, having a martinet of a teacher. “However, in the tradition of French composers who have written for the left hand, she obliged Mark. He then introduced me to Ms Brenet.

Whenever I was in Paris, she let me practise on her piano, in her huge mansion. I was so grateful that I thought the least I could do was to perform her only piano piece at concerts”. She was so moved when she heard him playing it that she then composed ‘To the West Wind’ for Bhimani in 2001, though he did not include it in the evening’s repertoire.

Brenet’s Preludes were not all dissonance and atonality that one associates with contemporary music. They were strong on evoking the moods and feelings contained in their titles.

Maurice Ravel’s ‘Miroirs is a famously Impressionist Opus. It demands considerable virtuosity, the performer needing to do justice to their very different technical qualities while also bringing out their range of expressive content.

Best-known is ‘Alborada del Gracioso’ , its Spanish flavour established with its dry opening chords reminiscent of guitars. Its frenetic passages are among the most difficult in piano music, where the two hands overlap, appearing to demand the same notes. The other pieces contained no less demanding cascades and arpeggios, flurries of pianissimo scurrying across the keyboard.

Interviewing Bhimani earlier, he was very personable, very low-key. While I am not an advocate of “the Singer not the Song”, a live performance must be enhanced by something unique in the performer, otherwise one might as well be at home, feet up, eyes closed, listening to a recording. There was a certain reticence that deprived Bhimani’s performance of that ineffable dimension.

Bhimani is very involved as a musical educator in the US, so it is a pity that only one piano student in Bangalore availed of a master class with him, as others were busy with their music exams. It is hoped that on his future visits more music students will benefit from his considerable teaching methods and knowledge.


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