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Duel: Paganini versus Lafont; Peter Sheppard Skærved and Christine Sohn (violins) / Academy Chamber Ensemble. Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music London. 27.2.06 (ED)


Lafont (1781-1839): Variations on the Invocation from Spontini’s ‘La Vestale’
Paganini (1782-1840): Le Streghe
Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831): Sinfonia Concertante no 1 in F

The first evening event in the week long ‘Paganini in London’ Festival at the Royal Academy of Music, was, as Peter Sheppard Skærved pointed out at the start of the evening something of a ‘creative lie’. The violin duel between Paganini and the Frenchman Charles Philippe Lafont actually took place at La Scala, Milan in 1816. It consisted (as in this concert) of one work written by the soloist and a concertante work brought by Lafont for the occasion.


This is probably where the historical event and this concert reached the limit of what they have in common, as the concert offered more than was on the official programme. Each half of it began with a Paganini divertimento for violin and small ensemble – one Scottish, one English in flavour – that could not have lent themselves better to commemorating Paganini’s 1831 visit.


Peter Sheppard Skærved laid down the gauntlet as Lafont, though playing on Paganini’s 1743 Guarneri del Gesù “Il Cannone” ; on loan from the city of Genoa for the Festival, and to be played by Maxim Vengerov in the final concert. Befitting the style of the period, Lafont’s solo work began in concert with the orchestra after which it developed lyricism and a body of subtlety that suited the violin well (ironically given it is Paganini’s instrument being used.) The section with pizzicato accompaniment came across with great vitality, contrasting effectively with more reflective variations (played piano) and the particularly gregarious final rousing variation. “Il Cannone” showed itself to be an instrument of warmth and tonal allure, though not perhaps as resonant as some might have expected or desired. It's an extremely fine and treasured instrument nonetheless, with much to offer in the right hands.  


Paganini’s solo riposte was his own Le Streghe, a work that has held its place in the repertoire not only because of its composer, but also owing to its tunefulness and inventively powerful dramatic sense. Skærved directed the ensemble with passion and his gestures displayed that it can be difficult to separate instrumental playing entirely  from the activity of conducting. Often, he felt the need to ‘bow’ his beat against an invisible string, but even so the ensemble sections responded with immediacy and equal passion to the task. Christine Sohn took Paganini’s part in her stride easily, dispatching the fearsome solo with beauty of tone, technical security and with flicks of decorative fancy that showed the specific regard in which Paganini held the upper hand over Lafont.


Interspersing both works were readings and sundry ‘heckles’ from contemporary press reports and the like about Paganini. All were given most excellently by ladies positioned throughout the audience and added an amusing atmosphere to the proceedings. One commented of Paganini, that he was “a producer of squealing melody upon filthy catgut”, and another pilloried his concert fees – breaking down the amounts to how much he earned for playing a quaver, or for that matter, a bar’s rest!


The duel came to a head when Kreutzer’s Sinfonia Concertante was played. Paganini and Lafont shared the two solo roles, though Paganini refused the one offered him – no doubt to wrong foot his ‘opponent’. The contest saw Skærved this time as Paganini with Sohn taking Lafont’s part. And as befits an evening of supreme violin art, two of the centrepieces from the Academy’s collection were used as the solo instruments: a 1699 Stradavari (Skærved) and another by Vuillaume (whom Paganini knew in Paris and with whom he may possibly have collaborated) was played by Sohn.


Of the Kreutzer work itself, the opening - Allegro moderato - saw both soloists accompanied by the orchestra before launching into their separate solos, often inspired by the colouring or phrasing of the ensemble – horns and woodwinds being prominent over largely unison and tightly controlled strings.


The middle movement – Adagio – saw Lafont make the first solo move, though Paganini was quick to follow. Here, one heard perhaps why Paganini thought Lafont not inferior to himself with regard to technique, discounting the fact that Lafont's was the finer instrument. So it proved here, with little between the protagonists, but with Sohn consistently pulling a more refined and creamy tone from the Vuillaume. The conversational nature of this movement further underlined the recognition / respect conceivably possible between two artists at that moment. Recognition was evidently not whole-hearted however, as Paganini trounced Lafont and soon packed him off to Paris (ostensibly to recover his favourite bow!)


Like the duel itself, the work ended in a display of virtuosic fireworks from both players, supported generously by excellent ensemble playing throughout.  The evening showed off not only the talents of both soloists and the Academy Chamber Ensemble, but brought Lafont's name from the shadow of his Italian compatriot for at least one evening. In a different age, the publice much might have remembered of him better. Such is the capriciousness of fame…


Talking of caprices (and specifically Paganini's), a lunchtime event saw the playing of many more, some in unusual forms, along with new compositions in the genre. A highlight was the arrangement of Paganini’s caprice number 6 by George Enescu, with the violin part played as originally written alongside a delicate impressionistic piano accompaniment. This was its first modern performance since Enescu recorded it with Menuhin in 1934. Other pieces included similar arrangements by Schumann, for flute by Jules Herman, and guitar by Hvartchilkov. All of them showed the continuing power that these works, once thought unplayable, still hold for composers and performers today.



Evan Dickerson




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