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Graffin shows virtuosity JPO sadly lacks

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TO JPO Graffin

JOHANNESBURG PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA

PROGRAMME: Music by Coleridge-Taylor and Bruckner

CONDUCTOR: Thomas Sanderling

SOLOIST: Philippe Graffin, violin

VENUE: Linder auditorium, Parktown

RATING: **** (concerto)

*** (symphony)

London’s Musical Times on April 1, 1900 wrote about the premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s new work, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.

“The pent-up feeling of the deeply moved audience relieved itself in such cheers and shouts of appro- bation as must have warmed and gladdened the heart of the composer and, if we may incidentally say so, also of those who for some years past have hailed the young Anglo-African as the coming man in music.”

Much the same sentiment is felt when the French violin virtuoso Philippe Graffin performs his Violin Concerto in G minor, Opus 80 (Coleridge-Taylor’s swansong) with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra. It is nine years ago that they made a commercial recording of it, with Michael Hankinson conducting, which once again placed the international spotlight on this talent who, from his father’s side, was of Sierra Leonean origin. He died, far too young, aged 37.

Graffin is totally immersed in all the diverse stylistic aspects of a concerto which has its own voice. It is extremely well written for the instrument and explores, with well integrated thematic material, virtuosity and lyricism. With ripe tonal production, especially in the lower register, Graffin takes us through varied musical landscapes and moods. The originality of the first movement cadenza, accompanied by long notes on three double basses, is striking.

The Andante semplice hints at the salon, but never becomes sentimental. The movement is developed with great poise and the necessary intensity. In the Allegro molto finale the composer finds his most advanced, mature voice.

Graffin keeps the listener spellbound throughout. The JPO and the German maestro Thomas Sanderling give solid support.

In Bruckner’s Symphony No 4 in E flat major – Romantic, the JPO’s weaknesses are clearly exposed. There is not the safety to be found in the ideal number of players, especially amongst the strings. With only three double basses, an under- nourished viola section, missing at least four players in a work where this section is prominently spotlighted, it can never sound rich, neither homogenous. On Wednesday the French horns were far below par.

A famous conductor described Bruckner as being like a meteor in the history of music, a strange piece of lunar rock on the road from Schubert to Berg. Sanderling must have been disconcerted by the JPO situation, giving us a truthful representation of the notes, but without the inner mystery or the irreconcilable conflict within the composer’s personality.

Apart from the brass often being too loud for the lack of JPO string body, it is in the more intimate sections where the performance shines. One of many examples: at the opening movement’s recapitulation passage where the melody has a most beautiful “halo” fashioned from a delicate flute solo hovering above it.

Parts of the Andante quasi Allegretto second movement sounds like an act of somnambulism. The Scherzo is played swiftly, with a satisfying inner drive, but in the Finale, one of the weakest ones amongst Bruckner’s 11 symphonies, Sanderling’s grasp of the relative importance of individual ideas within the competing hierarchies of thematic material, does not impress.

• This concert will be repeated on Sunday at 3pm in the ZK Matthews Hall, Theo van Wijk Bldg, Preller St, Unisa, Pretoria.


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