After a long tiring week, it was a great pleasure to saunter down to the City Recital Hall with a friend and settle in a for a night of romantic music on period instruments. I had been warned to ‘not miss the Paganini’ by a fellow classikON-er, but it would be a little wait via Mendelssohn and Grieg before we were treated to virtuosic violin master’s music. With an almost full house, artistic director Paul Dyer greeted us with a little history of our soloist Shunske Sato – Japanese born, educated at Julliard and now living in The Hague in The Netherlands, where he is recording 1000 works of JS Bach and releasing them for free once a week – but mostly to announce he was sitting the first half out to let Sato direct from the violins.
Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No. 3 in E minor
With just the string players on stage, Sato led the ABO with a classic work and at times amazing speed. Written when Mendelssohn was only 12 years old, and reflecting his interest in JS Bach and Mozart, this short three-movement Symphony was performed with precision and excellent ensemble. I prefer the sound of the ABO strings when they are standing up rather than sitting as the movements of the players are not as restricted and move as one.
Grieg’s Holberg Suite
This piece is an old favourite and when my friend thought she didn’t know it by name and then almost squealed with joy on the first few notes, we knew we were in for a treat. Sato again was fantastic as leader of the full strings of the ABO – I don’t think I have heard them play this well for a while. The Grieg was rich and playful, the ensemble was again playing as one and the cello solo in the second movement sublime. The Scottish colours in the later movements were exquisite and Sato’s solos in the final movement were full of spirit. I will be humming the catchy themes for some time.
Paganini, the devil of the violin
After a well-needed ice cream break at interval (it is Friday night after all) we were thrust into Romantic schmaltz and virtuosity like never heard before on gut strings. I have never heard Paganini’s concertos played live before and Sato appeared just the man to do the fourth justice. Paganini did let anyone else play or even see the concertos when he was still alive; apparently no one else would dare to attempt them.
This concerto really is nothing but a show-off piece for the soloist – there’s not a lot of interaction between soloist and orchestra other than to give the soloist a break. Paganini famously said about the orchestra, ‘I only use it to fill in the gaps between my solo passages so that I can get my breath’. The first movement has the violinist playing every trick in the book – double and triple stopping, bowing with the right hand while the left hand is also plucking the strings, and such flamboyance of speed that there was barely a pause in the notes to really catch a breath. The audience could not wait until the end of the concerto to madly applause and cheer at the end of the first movement, but we knew there would be a lot more to come.
Schmaltzy slow movement
This was the Liberace movement and so sickly schmaltzy there was hardly an audience member not audibly swooning. It certainly was ‘tearful and with feeling’. There was still plenty of virtuosic techniques thrown in but it gave us the audience a moment to relax but a fiery third movement.
Special mention must go to the wind, brass and percussion of the ABO in the second half of this concert – great to hear such a big sound and they certainly kept up with the soloist! Thinking we had heard all the pyrotechnics possible, we were mistaken as Paganini certainly left the best for the last movement. With a guest trianglist up front (what a treat from the conductor!) Sato left us wanting more and the audience on all three levels of the City Recital Hall gave him a standing ovation.
A caprice to conclude
The opening night audience missed out on an encore, but we were treated to the delightful Caprice No. 9 of Paganini – with Dyer sitting on the edge of the stage looking lovingly up at the soloist. A perfect digestif after the frenetic concerto to finish a stunning concert.
The concert is repeated on Wednesday 14 September, Friday 16 September and Saturday 17 September 2016.