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Wednesday, August 31, 2011


(Ben Schoeman)

The young Pretoria pianist Ben Schoeman has built an international reputation in recent years, and deservedly so. He is now a virtuoso of the first rank, and this was amply demonstrated in this recital for the Friends of Music at the Durban Jewish Centre.

He is a poised pianist, with an unostentatious, controlled keyboard manner. He presented a programme of Bach, Grieg and Liszt that went some distance from the beaten track and was all the more enjoyable for that. His opening item, Bach’s Toccata in C minor, BMV 911, displayed clearly his technical expertise and his insight into the music. A toccata is a showpiece – the word means “touch” – but this one, written about 1705 for the clavier, the precursor of the piano, has plenty of introspective passages, plus a big fugue, the parts of which were expertly defined by the pianist.

This was followed by Grieg’s Sonata in E minor, Op. 7, and it was a particular pleasure to hear a work by this exceptionally gifted and maybe rather neglected Norwegian composer. The fast movements of the sonata were delivered with great vigour, and the lovely Andante was played with a really singing tone.

The second half of the programme was devoted to music by Liszt, starting with his lengthy and imposing Variations on Bach’s cantata Weinen, Klagen (Weeping, Lamenting). This was played with great skill and conviction, and the pianist showed his sense of form in holding together the disparate threads of the music, ranging from the solemn to the flamboyant.

Finally we had some entrancing pieces from Liszt’s Annees de Pelerinage, Years of Pilgrimage, written while and after wandering around Italy and Switzerland. Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este (Fountains of the Villa d’Este) is a masterpiece of early impressionism, depicting vividly the sounds and sights of jets of water in the sunshine. The technical challenges are formidable, and Ben Schoeman met them with total accuracy and aplomb.

The three pieces called Venezia e Napoli, Venice and Naples, were published as a supplement to the Annees de Pelerinage. They are gondoliers’ songs from Venice and a tarantella from Naples, the tarantella being the wild dance supposed to cure the bite of a tarantula spider. Liszt’s tarantella is the ultimate in piano virtuosity, rapid leaps, fast repeated notes, thundering octaves, and Ben Schoeman gave a stunning performance, as exciting to see as it was to hear.

His response to rapturous applause was to wave a weary hand at the audience, shaking his fingers gently. He was feeling too tired to play an encore, and understandably so.

The Prelude Performers of the evening, funded by the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, were 20 singers from the Open Air School at Glenwood. These are physically handicapped youngsters, formed into a small choir and coached and conducted by Derek Stafford. Some of them are in wheelchairs, others have crutches, they all have severe disabilities of one kind or another, but instead of complaining they sing, sweetly and expertly, Zulu songs, plus a little popular item, plus a hymn by the English composer John Rutter called “For the beauty of the earth”.I found their performance musically rewarding and spiritually uplifting, and, judging by the prolonged applause, everybody else in the audience felt the same way. - Michael Green