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FRIENDS OF MUSIC: MANDOLIN & GUITAR RECITAL (article first published : 2006-03-17)

An audience rather different from the usual supporters of the Friends of Music attended this recital in the Durban Jewish Centre; the mandolin lovers of Durban, maybe. They were given an evening of music that was well off the beaten track, both in respect of the instruments involved and the music played.

The performers were Craig Ogden, an Australian guitarist, and Alison Stephens, a mandolin player from England, both young and both highly accomplished. Their instruments go well back into musical history; I tend to associate the mandolin with the songs that Shakespeare sometimes inserted into his plays, and among those who liked playing the guitar were Niccolo Paganini and, improbably enough, Franz Schubert.

The two instruments are quite different in tone, the guitar rather stronger and the mandolin more brilliant with a kind of ringing quality. In a programme ranging from the early eighteenth century to the late twentieth the two players displayed a wide variety of sounds and techniques, sometimes in partnership, sometimes as soloists.

The best-known work was Vivaldiís Concerto in C, RV 425, which has apparently achieved some popularity through being played on the radio. It is an attractive three-movement work. In this performance the original part for string orchestra was transcribed for solo guitar; not an entirely satisfactory substitution but better to hear it this way than not at all.

Similarly, a movement from Hummelís Concerto in G was performed with guitar instead of orchestra. Johann Hummel (1778-1837) was a prolific composer who in his lifetime was compared favourably with Beethoven and then fell into the ranks of mediocrity, being remembered mainly for a celebrated Rondo Favori for piano. Now, however, there seems to be a revival of interest in his music. This movement, a set of variations for the mandolin on an elegant theme, is certainly easy on the ear.

The other eight items on the programme covered virtually unknown but consistently interesting territory. They included a work by a contemporary Mexican composer, Eduardo Angulo, in which use is made of two contrasting themes, a lullaby and a vigorous dance. Introducing this piece, Alison Stephens pointed out that the Mexican composer had written it for a German mandolin and guitar duo, and that it was being played here in South Africa by an Australian and an Englishwoman. A multinational business.

Not least significant on the programme was a work composed by Alison Stephens herself, a poignant yet brilliant piece which amply demonstrated the effects obtained by rapid arpeggios on the mandolin.

The eveningís Prelude Performer, funded by the National Lottery, was yet another gifted young musician of oriental origin, Tsu-Shiuan, a 14-year-old pianist who is a pupil at Crawford North Coast. Playing Debussy and Bartok he showed that, technically and interpretatively, he was well ahead of the level of most prelude performers. - Michael Green




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