St Peter's Church recitals: pianist Ben Schoeman excels with challenging Russian programme

Written by Christopher Rogers on .

Ben SchoemanBen Schoeman


In the latest of this popular series of Brilliant Young Musician recitals at St Peter's Church, we welcomed back the South African pianist, Ben Schoeman (June 24.) He played here in 2014 and earlier this year he played with the Swindon Choral Society when they sang the Puolenc Gloria in Marlborough College chapel - and a spectacular performance that was.  


Ben first studied firstly at the University of Pretoria and in 2016 was awarded a doctorate at City University in London. He has already had an impressive international career, playing in a wide range of prestigious concert venues, both recitals and as soloist in the great piano concerti by Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Ravel.


Ben Schoeman is passionate about Russian music and this formed the basis of his programme at St Peter's Church.  He began with Prokofiev’s Sonata No 3, one of a series of short sonatas written in 1917 reflecting the post-revolutionary optimism that was exploding in Russia.


It is full of force and grandeur, with sections which remind the listener of clanking machinery and the whole panoply of the brave new world of the Soviet worker. It is a powerful piece, skilfully executed and rich in contrasting mood.


There are moments of lyricism, but the overall impression of ruthless energy. With its thundering cacophony of dissonances, it was a superb evocation of the now-vanished  Soviet Age.


Scriabin’s Preludes (Opus 9) were written between 1888 and 1896, in the golden age of Russian Romanticism.  Ben played a diverse and contrasting selection of nine of these. Many were gently rippling, light and wistful, with faint memories of Chopin in the air, while others are much darker, Russian Romanticism in full flight.


There were preludes in a wide range of keys, both major and minor and their brevity enabled Ben to explore very successfully the variety of mood and technique they demand.


The first half finished with Rachmaninoff’s wonderful Variations on a Theme of Corelli, written in 1932 while he was living in Switzerland. The basic theme is a catchy little popular folk melody called ‘La Folia’ - the source of inspiration to many Baroque composers, including Corelli.


Written at much the same time as the more famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini there are many stylistic similarities - not difficult to spot. There is a wide range of moods and technical skill reflected in these variations, two of which are at breakneck speed with furious rhythms thundered out in the left hand.


At one point a repeating note sounded like a bell tolling above the cacophony of notes. Other variations are languid and thoughtful. Indeed it is one of the gentle variations with which the work finishes, with Ben reducing the volume to a point where music and time were one, soloist absolutely motionless as a deep silence held Saint Peter’s.  What a performance.


The second half began with a piano version of Tchaikovsky’s much-loved Nutcracker Suite (Opus 71a) transcribed in 1978  by the Russian pianist Michail Pletnev.  These were very demanding indeed - ample evidence that the transcriber was a very talented pianist himself!


The march was thickly textured, there were dramatic scales, leaping arpeggios while the glorious melody of the Pas de Deux soared effortlessly above the rippling scales and arpeggios of the ‘accompaniment’.  However, most impressive of all the dances was the Tarantella, that fast and furious Italian dance played here with consummate dexterity - Ben’s fingers lost in a visual blur. Yes, he does have only ten of them!


The recital finished with another great Rachmaninoff sonata - no 2 in B Minor.  This was a version reworked in 1931 from a sonata originally written in 1913. It is - allegedly - a simplified version!  Like the Corelli Variations the work is dark, brooding and very Russian.  


Perhaps it reflects the coming storm of the First World War and the Russian Revolution from which Rachmaninoff eventually fled - never to see his homeland again.  


The work is technically very challenging indeed with fiendish runs and scales, out of which periodically there are echoes of the rich and deep sonorities associated with the Orthodox tradition, while at other moments there are hints of the pealing bells of the great Russian cathedrals - images dear to the heart of the refugee composer.


It was a virtuoso performance of immense craftsmanship and subtle interpretation, ample evidence of Ben’s empathy with Russian music.


To bring us all back to earth, as an encore Ben played some Scarlatti - playful, gentle and emotionally unchallenging.  Just what we needed!  It was a wonderful recital made all the more memorable by Ben Schoeman’s very enlightening introductory remarks. We hope he will return.