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Thursday, November 5, 2009


South African pianist presents enormously taxing programme for FOM recital.

The South African pianist Ben Schoeman presented an enormously taxing programme in this recital for the Friends of Music at the Durban Jewish Centre, and showed in the process that he is a true virtuoso.

He is, I estimate, in his early thirties, though he looks younger. He is now studying in Italy. We have heard him several times in the past and we knew he was a very good pianist, but I do not recall his playing music quite as technically challenging as the works on this programme. And he is not simply a technician of the keyboard. His playing is always sympathetic and thoughtful, his technical prowess placed at the service of the music itself.

He opened with Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 2, No. 2. Beethoven’s early sonatas are not played very often in public, which is a pity. They are beautiful, graceful and brilliant, a reminder that the composer himself was a supreme pianist. Ben Schoeman took this sonata at high speed but was nevertheless able to give due emphasis to the composer’s many felicitous touches of melody, harmony and rhythm. In general his performance captured the joie de vivre of this work.

He followed with Rachmaninov’s Variations on a theme of Corelli. This is one of Rachmaninov’s lesser known compositions, and its title is a misnomer. The theme is the famous Portuguese folk melody La Folia, which Corelli (in common with many other composers) adapted for his own use. It lends itself well to variation treatment, and Rachmaninov’s 20 variations are typical of his piano style: brilliant, romantic, solemn, sentimental, melancholy. Ben Schoeman presented them with great power and conviction.

Then came another relatively little-known work, Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op.35, No. 1. This is a kind of tribute to Bach (Mendelssohn was largely responsible for the 19th century revival of interest in Bach) but, as the programme note sagely observed, nobody could possibly mistake it for the music of Bach. The prelude is romantic and vigorous, the fugue is skilfully laid out, builds up to a big climax and ends quietly. An interesting and enjoyable work.

Finally, we were given Liszt’s massive and exceptionally difficult Sonata in B minor. This produced a thrilling display of pianism. At times the player’s hands were a blur as he delivered Liszt’s rapid double octaves. The quiet moments of the sonata (the best moments, in my opinion) elicited some beautiful cantabile playing from Ben Schoeman. At the end the audience gave him a well-deserved ovation.

The evening’s Prelude Performers, funded by the National Lottery, were two sisters from Japan who have been in South Africa for less than year and are pupils at Crawford College, La Lucia. One of them, six-year-old Emiri Nishii, must be the youngest and smallest prelude performer ever to grace a Friends of Music concert. With her 11-year-old sister, Erina Nishii, she played a delightful piece by Mozart called Pantomime and then gave a brave and competent solo account of Mendelssohn’s Spring Song. Erina, five years older, is obviously a better player at this stage. She played as a solo the main theme from the film Schindler’s List. These two children were eloquent evidence of what talent and hard work can achieve. We will watch their progress with interest. - Michael Green