FOM Gala Review – Klatzow, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Rimsky-Korsakov – Benjamin Schmid, Martin Panteleev

Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall, Thursday 4 November 2014

Reviewed by Andy Wilding

Klatzow – “Congratulations!” World Première
With a crash, we were swept off our feet by smiling, handshaking trombones, quickly answered by lauding violins – a surprise reception in honour of a great achievement. There’s no time for chit chat, a development of the first theme takes us through the shoulder-patting crowd and lands on the tonic minor – perhaps we have found a secluded balcony garden in which to reflect on our laurels. A beautiful arabesque theme emerges and wonders into mysticism, however, deep in thought, we have not forgotten the overwhelming praise from only a minute ago, and there is an underlying sense of anticipation and desire to return to the celebration. We are not left alone for long, the trumpets find us, and we are enthusiastically implored to return to the party with a recap of the first theme. This undergoes another rich development, like a toast given by a different speaker, and in a flash of gorgeous modern harmonies and exciting neo-romanticism, it’s over!

It all happened so quickly, one hardly had time to think! But in retrospect it made complete sense, and followed the brief to the letter – A composition to mark the CTPO’s 100 year anniversary. Klatzow’s youthfully optimistic themes are refreshingly original and they remind us of his natural talent as a composer, but the way he develops material reveals a deep academic mastery of the art of composing, which can only be learned from rigorous study of the great maestros. Last night’s premier was to my ears well captured by Panteleev, who kept the pace brisk and courteous. It was excellently performed by the orchestra, in ironically self-congratulatory circumstances!

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Mendelssohn – The Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave)
The cellos began unanimously over shimmering twinkling violins. From the first bars, Panteleev demonstrated a mastery in creating musical pictures of dramatic contrast by ensuring that background action is noticeably softer, which creates an atmosphere that naturally highlights themes and solos, making them stand out from the accompaniment. His timing and phrasing make good sense of the composer’s musical sentences, and his exciting dynamics are communicated with confident, striding, clear movements. He conducts in a style which I understand to be naturally intuitive and easy to follow. The meter is clear, with beats at the top of his baton. The orchestra responded with such magical moments as an excellent passage of synchronised rhythmic staccato from the strings, a charming clarinet duet from Oscar Kitten and Beatrix du Toit, a beautifully lyrical motive from the cellos and Brandon Philips, (bassoon) and a rousing fanfare with trumpets flying clear above the orchestra. When the applause began, Panteleev first acknowledged the soloists, and then the full orchestra before turning to accept his recognition.

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with Benjamin Schmid Paganini No.1 Cape Town

with Benjamin Schmid Paganini No.1 Cape Town

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Paganini – Violin Concerto No. 1 in D major
1. It was immediately clear in the extremely technical opening that in watching Schmid perform, we were in the presence of a certifiable master of the instrument. His runs were mind bending, arpeggios astonishing, double stops swimming in lyricism, vibrato minimal, and all with impeccable intonation. Most of the first subject and development consists of semiquavers played at Lamborghini speed, and I found myself not just a little glazed, becoming forgetful of the sheerness of technique that this highly talented instrumentalist has mastered. (Schmid recently received the acknowledgement of being included among the “Great Violinists of the Twentieth Century”, in a book bearing that title.)

The second subject opens like another caprice, becoming free tempo with occasional ripples of demi-semiquavers. A section in 6/8 follows, with another lesson in technique. At this point we have become so accustomed to double stopping that we expect every line to supply it’s own harmony, but this remarkable composer, and maestro Schmid performing, then introduced the bouncing of the bow on the strings to create double stopped demi-semiquavers. When given a chance to be lyrical, Schmid has amazing depth of dynamism and beautiful control over his tone, and he seems to enjoy serenading us with Beethovenian themes. Always keeping us on the edge of disbelief, he accelerates when the technique is more demanding! One is reminded that Paganini’s concertos were platforms for an unusually accomplished performer to demonstrate mastery of technique – now a trill on one string while a theme continues on a separate string, followed by an arpeggio variation instead of the trill. The fact that any living person person can match the virtuoso of The Legend is truly amazing, and Schmidt’s performance of this work left my brain not a little dismantled. Am I going crazy? Or merely hallucinating? Is he crossing over dimensions? How is this even possible? Somewhat thankfully, the movement ended and I came back into the room to find a full standing ovation after the first movement! I was glad not to be alone in losing my common sense for a moment!

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2. The second movement gives the soloist a chance to be lyrical and dynamically exciting. Schmid has the control to be heard at full tutti, and in the following bar of surprise silence from the orchestra, brings his sound down to ppp. I enjoyed his embodiment of the composer’s expression both in his sound and his visual vitality.

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3. For the finale, Paganini returns to his capricious style, and we are schooled in further levels of unlikely accomplishment in violin playing. If Hogwart’s had a music department, this is what we would hear. Schmid stood poised like an Olympic gymnast about to begin his next reality defying routine: a theme consisting entirely of double stopped harmonics. One can barely believe the speed and accuracy. Is he cheating? Or is he magic? One does find oneself reaching outside of the box to explain the sound coming from the stage. Next is the composer’s signature technique, the pizzicato arpeggio pull-off, accomplished by the fingers of the left hand plucking the string while holding a lower note, creating rapid cascades of pizzicato arpeggios. This was followed by semiquaver triplets, played at approximately 12 notes a second. Who’s going to argue with that?

I am certain that I witnessed one of the greatest living performers of this instrument..

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with Martin Panteleev Sheherazade Cape town

with Martin Panteleev Sheherazade Cape town

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Rimsky-Koraskov – Scheherazade
1. The orchestra’s opening was bold and concise, quickly becoming mystical as the winds spelled out the formulaic opening chords 1 7 6 4, into which the solo violin wafted like a meandering column of incense. Panteleev brought each climax with grace and calculated control. He was Neptune controlling the waters. Patrick Goodwin (violin) was everything we wanted to hear, romantic and concerto-like. There was a lovely dialogue between Kristiyan Chernev (cello) and Oscar Kitten, (clarinet) Sergei Burdukov, (oboe) and Gabriele von Durkheim (flute). This work always reminds me why so many people support the orchestra. Even with the higher ticket price The City Hall was at full capacity, because there is something truly wonderful about the experience of sitting in a concert and letting oneself be taken on an adventure of imagination, real or fantasy, and this escape from reality is only possible when the performance is of such a high standard that no errors can detract from the enjoyment of the work. Such a performance was last night. CTPO Board Chairman Ben Rabinowitz summed it up in his post concert speech: “In art, you know what you like – in music, you like what you know.”

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2. Goodwin (violin) stepped in with a sublime solo, evoking rich Persian mosaics, tapestries, lattice windows, sand stone walls, and marble floors. One has to wonder at this marvellous work, as Brandon Phillips (bassoon) and Burdukov (oboe) lead us from the exotic palaces of Persia to the lonely plains of Russia. The orchestra swelled and receded like the tide under Panteleev’s baton. Talking to him after concert, he described to me the feeling of conducting Scheherazade. He said he becomes a channel through which the sound flows, as opposed to conducting other works where he feels he has to create the sound, and he is very much in control of it at all times. And I do hope he will forgive the humble analogy, but there were one or two moments when he seemed to be conducting this oceanic sound in the same way that seaweed conducts the swell – and I was not entirely sure if he was so much leading per se, or moving organically with the current. The result of a conductor being – as Panteleev described it – “in the music”, is a freedom within the orchestra for chamber-like ensembles to emerge, for example the heart stopping duet by Chernev (cello) and Burdukov (oboe).

Of course, conductors are not dancers, and in this movement Panteleev’s quite unusual way of balancing the sound to bring out the soloists produced some excellent, succinct precision passages from the basses; an exciting duel between trombones and trumpets; a dinner-grabbing drop into pp in the pizzicato violins for Kitten’s breath-taking clarinet solo; incredible, sudden vertigo with piccolo and flutes: a tranquil lull for Philips’ bassoon solo, and a beautiful Pre-Raphaelite flute solo from Durkheim, answered by the horn of Caroline van Renen. The crescendo to the coda was verging on terrifying.

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3. Unison strings sang the pastoral theme with Panteleev’s signature contrasting dynamic highlights, bringing out the stunning effects of the harp. There were regular glimpses of Panteleev’s distinctly independent interpretation which never loses any of the familiarity that is so important with well known works. Goodwin’s solos, combined with the harp, had my hair standing on end. The final oceanic orchestral wave crashed spectacularly, like the moment one falls in love, as Sassanid King Shahryār did, with his enchanting story-teller.

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4. Goodwin made a dramatic opening with good suspense and a sense of desperation, suggesting the sharpness of our heroine’s wit as she continued to invent new her stories for her sister – the king was a fascinated observer – in a complicated weave, so that she always ended the night in the middle of a new story, lest she lose her head the next morning. She kept this up for 1001 nights, hence “1001 Arabian Nights” – the supposed collection of her stories. Meanwhile, winds and brass were doing well to enunciate semiquaver triplets as Panteleev introduced a surprise accelerando. Violins, flutes and piccolo did well with demi-semiquavers at this new tempo, a few shades quicker than usual. Then another surprise from Panteleev – a genius display of control – dropping one notch in volume in the middle of a crescendo, to lift the final arrival more dramatically. The climax arrived like a tsunami – a deluge of waves crashing, the flooding of deserts, horns and trumpets rising on the wind of the storm like Scheherazade’s curse on the king who murdered so many innocent women before her. The destruction was immaculate. In the aftermath, the violins picked up the theme. “Look, it’s broken”, they said, but warm peaceful winds returned, and life moved on. The sun came out. Goodwin’s final solo transformed the goddess who’s wrath we recently witnessed, to appear in the form of a little girl. Floating, no longer part of this world, she reminded us of the opening theme, a promise that she said she would keep, and then disappeared with the mystical formula in the winds, 1 7 6 4.

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