Concert Review – Elgar, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak – Lukas Vondracek, Theodore Kuchar

Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall, Thursday 28 August 2014

Reviewed by Andy Wilding

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Elgar – Cockaigne Overture

Strings opened with precision and singing lyricism – swelling cellos expanding the charm of the melody – and the orchestra demonstrated a reassuring confidence with this lesser-known work. Being Elgar, it was quite brassy, (in his own words: “stout and steaky”) and our trumpets and trombones were dynamic, warm and shiny, in their stirring march. Light, fresh winds transported us back to the romantic gardens of Edwardian London. Kuchar’s good report was evident in the responsiveness of the orchestra, and in his excellent control over dramatic dynamics and crescendos. They were synchronous throughout, and their closing was succinct and precise.
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Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto no.1

Certainly one of the tallest orders for any pianist, is this concerto. Expectations are naturally high, and the performance is un-naturally difficult, since Tchaikovsky was not a pianist, and therein lies the challenge for the performer. Vondracek pounced, puma-like, upon this challenge, and triumphantly, he devoured it utterly and meticulously.

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1. From the first lightning strike of the orchestra, answered by the horns, to the beginning of the 1st subject, no-one breathed. The piano rumbled and thundered resplendently, the octave theme souring above the clouds. Vondracek’s right hand is both powerful and sensitive, handling the octaves with complete accuracy, while using the full dynamic range of his fingers. His pedal technique adds another layer of control to his amazing sound, spot-lighting crisp soft phrasing out of sustained running passages.

We observed a meridian performance of this work, not only by the pianist, but also by the orchestra. Vondracek and the flutes had a lovely dialogue, and the horns achieved perfect consecutive ppp entries, to bridge into the 1st subject.

Vondracek continued his incredible performance – light and audible with outstanding surprise dynamics – and note perfect, over extremely difficult terrain. We saw him take a well earned deep breath before the second subject, and then it was back to work. His left hand beautifully expressed the second theme, while the right hand performed a passage clearly conceived by an enthusiastic stranger to the instrument: A trill is maintained by two fingers of the right hand, while the other fingers of the same hand play a counterpoint, and this over the tune in the left hand. I can only imagine how many pianists HATE this concerto!

Vondracek seems to enjoy it, again convincing us that his octave technique is out of this world. Meanwhile the orchestra danced ballet-like, seamlessly blending with the piano’s shimmering, difficult ripples.

By the cadenza, I was already punch-drunk. I wrote: “He brings his own style mischievously good”.

Luckily, before any medical emergencies occurred, the strings let us breath, sweeping us freshly through Tchaikovsky’s kaleidoscopic colours. Kuchar expertly controlled the tempo to match Vondracek’s Lisztian passages, after which, as the orchestra re-joined him, I wondered where I was.

When it was over, there were a handful of stupefied claps… but how does one not clap after that?

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2. The audience was allowed to recover, thanks to a stunning flute solo (Gabriele von Durckheim) over pizzicato strings, which opened into the peaceful and pastoral second movement, featuring the alluring bemusement of the cello and oboe duets (Kristiyan Chernev and Sergei Burdukov). The change of pace into a quick 6/8 dance, ushers in a new level of insanity for the pianist – and yet we heard not one misplaced semiquaver, over quite long passages, some played in octaves. (In this section, the semiquavers are 12 per second.)

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3. Tchaikovsky so liked the idea of putting a pianist through that pace, he did it again in the 3rd movement. In 6/8, at much the same tempo, Vondracek continued his note perfect, exhilarating performance with his own style of surprise dynamics and incredible technique. His talent seems limitless – whatever he attempts, he succeeds. Quite beyond belief, Kuchar coaxed an accelerando out of this already breathtaking pace, to produce the rushing, souring ending that we imagine should be the cap-stone to a concerto of this calibre.

The applause leaped and whistled, stadium-like, until Vondracek returned to his seat.

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Encore: Bohuslav Martenu – Polka

A hardly-known work, this show-piece continued to dazzle and bewilder, further demonstrating the Czech pianist’s perfection of a technique used throughout the Tchaikovsky concerto, to accomplish semiquavers in chords, or octave running passages: The pianist allows and controls a muscle shudder in the arms at the frequency of the semiquavers, for example 12 Hz, or notes per second. I think Vondracek’s arms were still going from the Tchaikovsky, a bit like a race horse, and he played this encore to cool down.

Words from the departing audience that I happened to catch were “Astonishing!” … “That’s a youth well spent!” … “Bracing!”

I am sure not to be the first to suggest the anglicisation: “WonderCzech”.

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Dvorak – Symphony no. 9 “From The New World”

1. Proud horns pierced the moody atmospheric orchestra, with Dvorak’s hair raising first subject, later repeated by commanding, well balanced trombones. The orchestration of this symphony gives every section, and most of the soloists, a chance to shine, and I found myself just listening and enjoying it. We really are luckier than perhaps we realise, to live in a city where we have an orchestra that can play at the standard of an international conductor. Kuchar skilfully navigates through slight, exciting shifts in tempo, and the result is an ever-new experience of a well known work.

2. The opening brass painted archaic, dark shades of gold, red, and black, into which the cor anglais (Olga Burdukova) floated Dvorak’s “New World” theme, like a graceful swan over a mirror lake at dawn. It was the essence of tranquillity. Kuchar expertly balanced pizzicato double basses, walking in step with excellent phrasing, beneath the second theme in the winds. An impish, fluttering, articulate duet between clarinet and flute intervened, (Beatrix du Toit and Gabriele von Durckheim) and then a heart warming duet between violin and cello (Farida Bacharova and Kristiyan Chernev).

3. After a striding opening by full orchestra, I enjoyed Kuchar’s interpretation of the composer’s progressive syncopation, emphasised by timpanist Eugene Trofimczyk. The orchestra handled the off-set timing well, although I can imagine how demanding this must be to perform.

4. Majestic strings prepared the stage for proud trombones and trumpets, voicing another of Dvorak’s greatest themes. Like an enchantment, Kuchar fades the orchestra to shimmering strings, and a masterful ppp cymbal crash. Again I found myself swept away by the magic of the work, which means that the technical performance of the orchestra merged into a substructure that allowed the conductor to express his interpretation.

Two lone horns played out Dvorak’s greatest theme, joined by the full orchestra, timpani thundering, brass erupting, strings souring, in an elated tierce de picardie that brought us from the dubious depths of E minor, to the exulted heights of E major.

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Spring Symphony Season begins October 30

Conrad van Alphen (conductor), Georgi Anichenko (cello)

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Schumann – Cello Concerto in A minor

Rachmaninov – Symphony no 3 in A minor

Details on the CTPO website: http://www.cpo.org.za/

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