Berthine in concert

Berthine in concert: A review


By Dr. Luis Dias

Berthine van Schoor, Cello
Albie van Schakwyk, Piano
Hanna van Niekerk, Narrator.

What do you get when three “van”s turn up all at once? A concert, that’s what!

The concert, organised by ProMusica on Monday evening at the Kala Academy, got off to a gentle start, with a hitherto unknown and unpublished short work by Joseph Haydn, Adagio cantabile. Van Schoor stumbled upon it in a library in Salzburg, Austria. It was possibly a draft for the middle movement of a concerto. The work, in a major key, had tranquility written all over it. It was an apt insertion into the programme in a year that celebrates the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death.

The programme then took a quantum leap in time and space, to a work by South African, Pretoria-born, Indian-origin sitar maestro and composer, Vevek Ram. The work, Kriya, is composed in Raga Charukeshi. The work began with a turbulent allegro passage (“Chaos”), played in unison on both instruments, followed by a kaleidoscopic series of changes in mood, sometimes for solo cello, and finally a jugalbandi with the piano tapping out an ostinato reiteration of the second subject, while the cello melodic line wafted lightly above, and then faded away, to nothingness (“Calm”).

Then followed a salute to yet another jubilarian, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, whose birth bicentenary is being celebrated this year as well.

Mendelssohn wrote two sonatas for cello and piano. The more imposing sonata no.2 in D major towers over its sibling in musical majesty and mastery of form, but requires expert hands to unlock its true beauty. In four movements, it opens with an energetic Allegro vivace assai, with a bounding melody against excited repeated notes reminiscent of the opening theme of his “Italian” symphony. The second movement is Allegretto scherzando, with elfin magic echoing the score of Midsummer Night’s Dream that Mendelssohn was working on at the same time. Unfortunately, that puckish element somehow managed to elude in this performance. The third movement, Adagio, opens with solemn broken chords from the piano, and borrows heavily from J.S. Bach (some connect it to “Es ist vollbracht” from Bach’s St. John Passion) alternating with a recitative possibly alluding to Hebrew chant. The finale, Molto allegro e vivace, is a whirlwind of drama and exuberance that the duo brought across beautifully.

After a short interval, it was the turn of yet another “van” to share the stage: Ludwig van Beethoven. An admirer and champion of Mozart’s music, in 1801 he composed his variations for cello and piano on the duet of Pamina and Papageno from the Magic Flute, “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen”. (In men, who feel love). Fittingly, a line from the duet translates: “Man and wife reach to the height of godliness”. One cannot help wondering whether this is a metaphor Beethoven had in mind for the masculine voice of the cello, betrothed to the piano in these seven variations. While Beethoven often used the variation form to showcase technical brilliance, this set focuses more on lyrical expression, with no Sturm und Drang.

The last offering on the programme was The Carnival of the Animals, a 14-movement musical suite by French Romantic composer Camille Saint-Saëns. A favourite of music teachers and young children, it was originally penned for two pianos and orchestra, and this arrangement for cello, piano and narrator was made by German cellist Werner Thomas Mifune. Traditionally the poetry of Ogden Nash is used in the narrative, but the contributions of South African poet Philip de Vos lent their own inimitable charm to the performance. A veritable menagerie of fur, fins and feathers line up to form this work, the penultimate movement being the famous “Swan”, a staple in the cello repertoire. But other movements delight as well, such as the Tortoise doing the Can-Can in slow motion (brilliantly transcribed for pizzicato cello), Pianists (that notable species of beasts) practising their scales, and the braying of donkeys. “Characters with Long Ears” is a well-aimed dig at music critics.  This is programme imagery at its finest. It was rendered with panache by all three.

The encore piece was Cesar Cui’s Orientale, which uses as its theme the same Russian folk song quoted by Tchaikovsky in his Marche Slave.

It is a crying pity that this concert was so sparsely attended. It is imperative that audiences grow, especially among the youth, if such music is to flourish in Goa. Suggestions welcome at
Programme notes © Luis Dias. All rights reserved.

(An edited version of this review appeared in the Herald, Goa, on 29 October 2009)