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KZNPO CONCERT: OCTOBER 12 (article first published : 2006-10-16)

Camille Saint-Saens’s outstanding Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, written in 1872, was sandwiched between two mid-twentieth century works in this unusual concert given by the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra in the Durban City Hall, under the baton of the visiting Russian-American conductor Victor Yampolsky.

The Saint-Saens is one of the high points of the entire cello repertory of the nineteenth century, and it was given an excellent, well-judged performance by Peter Martens, a 35-year-old Cape Town cellist who comes from a distinguished South African musical family.

The concerto is in three continuous movements and it covers a wide emotional range, from the bold leap downward in the opening phrase to the jaunty, minuet-like second movement, all this interspersed with lyrical episodes of great beauty. Peter Martens plays on an old English Locky Hill cello, and the glowing face of the instrument seemed to reflect the glowing tone of the player.

The concert opened with Symphony No. 2 by the French-Swiss composer Arthur Honneger, who is best known for his oratorio King David and his orchestral piece Pacific 231, depicting the power and energy of a railway locomotive.

The second symphony is a three-movement work for string orchestra and, late in the proceedings, a solo trumpet. It dates from 1941, when Honneger was living an unhappy life in the Paris occupied by Nazi Germany. The opening movement is gloomy and tense but by no means unattractive, with much emphasis given to the dark-toned violas.

The structure of the work as a whole is formal, but dissonant harmonies abound. At the end the solo trumpet, expertly handled by Michel Schneuwly, introduces a positive and more melodious note.

Compelling music, in its own way, and it was given a compelling account by Victor Yampolsky and the orchestra’s 40 string players.

After the interval we had Shostakovich’s Symphony No 9, written at the end of the Second World War and nominally intended to celebrate Russia’s victory. It is quite short, lively in tempo and superficially quite cheerful, but there is no mistaking the bitter irony beneath the surface. Shostakovich was by this time totally disenchanted with the Soviet regime.

The audience for this concert was noticeably small. Shostakovich and Honneger are not crowd-pullers. This year we have had three symphonies by Shostakovich on the orchestra’s programmes, more, I think, than the symphonic representation of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert.

Shostakovich was born in 1906 and this year is his one hundredth anniversary. My guess is that many Durban music-lovers will be glad when the Shostakovich centennial is over. So will the people selling tickets at the box office. - Michael Green




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