Lara St John - Paganini

Its true to say that the concert concerto repertoire in the UK is painfully small and so any addition to it ought to be greeted with open arms & ears. The prospect of a live performance of Paganini's Violin Concerto No 2 "Il Campenella" is a rare one, for it to be performed by a woman is rarer. This isn't a gender issue per se but the physical requirements of the solo violin writing which require big hands/long fingers.

José Serebrier conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the virtuosic Lara St John from Canada was the soloist. I saw and heard the concerto in Poole and Portsmouth.

The first thing to say is that if this isn't the toughest concerto in the violin concerto it's bloody close. Ms St John stiffened her sinews and provided a gusty reading of it, she demonstrated that even today this is hard music to play and that effort is required to bring it to life. We should remember that Paganini was a superstar and his music demands that a charismatic approach too: the player must be a showman- or woman and determined and dazzling.

Ms St John is a striking presence on the podium, tall, beautiful, elegant and calm. The long introduction gave us time to watch her in repose, smiling when Paganini introduces wit, swaying to introduce us gently to her physical style.

What follows after the soloist enters is something of a long and testing dance for violin and orchestra. It places huge physical and technical demands on the soloist as one might expect of the work of this master showman. It is not easy for anyone to relax when the challenges are piled one on another. This isn’t filigree, nor frippery, it is hard-won beauty and daring is required to realise it. The first movement cadenza is fiendish - Ms St John played it well and communicated its procession of examinations without imposing herself and her armoury of talents on the music. At the end of the movement the effort she had put in was palpable and worthy of applause - though neither audience was brave enough to offer any.

The lyrical second movement is brief and Ms St John and the orchestra (which was too large in retrospect) sung out in full voice, but this is something of an interlude and everyone knows it. The finale has captured the imaginations of arrangers - most notably Liszt and most recently Arcadi Volodos. It is a tuneful, colourful showpiece of memorable melodies and witty orchestration. It is, of course, extremely demanding of the soloist - all the more so given the effort already put in. Soloist and orchestra delivered it with aplomb to great applause and cheers from a normally reserved crowd. The orchestra should have her back - they will be well rewarded by their audience if they do.

Ms St John demonstrated her powers as a violinist, who like Paganini, captures the heart as well as the mind. She played with a great physicality and intense musical feeling. There’s a sensuality about her playing which is not effortless - it brings you closer to the music revealing that this is no automatic process of reproduction but an incredible act of physical co-ordination, concentration and communication. It is true to say that Ms St John is one of the select band of artists who make music making a very tangible, energetic but collective experience. It is not simply “transmit and receive”; it is a combined act of will mediated through her technical ability. Grigori Sokolov is another artist who never lets the technical difficulty become the audiences’ problem. Like Sokolov too, St John has the audience’s trust and support - receptive to the music because they see honest endeavour on their behalf. There’s no superficial flinching from the task in hand - as her Bach CDs bear witness - with Lara St John all the powers at her disposal - and they are considerable - are given to musical expression of the highest order.


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