Concert Review – Liszt, Grieg, Dvorak – Andrey Pisarev, Conrad Van Alphen

Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall, Thursday 6 November 2014

Reviewed by Andy Wilding


Liszt – Festklange
Timpani and strings made a synchronous opening, quickly becoming very Lisztian, embossed with semiquavers for the violins, and punctuated by rhetorical brass. Van Alphen has good rapport with the orchestra – they seem to understand him well. His style combines the necessary tempo-marking that is an important function of conducting, with a precognitive style whereby direction is given in advance. The effect yesterday evening was a kind of awareness in the players, not only of the meter, but also of what to expect in the next few bars. They were an orchestral sea into which Suzanne Martens floated the loveliest violin solo. Although this work is not well known, the variety of solos make it an exceptional choice for an orchestral program. We were serenaded by some of our best instrumentalists in Cape Town: Kristiyan Chernev’s cello shone warmly over a bed of soft brass, answered by world class performances by Sergei Burdukov, oboe; Brandon Phillips, bassoon; Caroline van Renen, horn; and a beautiful ensemble with Martens, violin; Beatrix Mari du Toit, clarinet; and Gabriele von Durckheim, flute. Von Alphen created a wonderful open space using shimmering ethereal violins, into which he brought the final recap of the theme, letting the brass off the lead, to run barking excitedly into the coda.


Grieg – Piano Concerto
Pisarev’s opening was bright and his runs were audible, even into the top register. I enjoyed his understanding of the occasionally supportive aspect of the piano part when the orchestra carries the theme, and his ability to reposition himself at the front of the sound, when the piano returns as the focus, was notable. His impressive finger strength allowed the tops of his runs to be heard even over trumpets, and he effectively accomplished the technique after the cadenza, where single notes are isolated from a sustained arpeggio using the pedal. I enjoyed Caroline van Renen’s lovely horn counterpoint, and in the 3rd movement, Gabriele von Durckheim’s flute solo had me floating in my seat.


Dvorak – Symphony no. 8
1. Tenors and basses introduced a moody subject that wondered through greys and greens, and eventually found it’s home in a beautifully rounded note from the tuba of Shaun Williams. Principle nightingale Gabriele von Durckheim landed effortlessly on a nearby tree. Von Alphen has a way with dynamics, that stirs the power of the whole orchestra. Bringing back the cellos with the 1st subject, they were more fantastic, as they were joined by brass. He lets the excitement and drama of the work build naturally from the orchestration, while maintaining control to assure that there is always enough volume in reserve, to give the climaxes an extra push. The close to the movement was exhilarating and synchronous, the echo resounding in the ceiling.

2. Opening winds set a pastoral Western Asian feel, with a dialogue between flutes and clarinets. Basses and horns provided a charming banter over which the soft zephyrs of the wind section picked up, and became the canvas for another stunning violin solo by concertmaster Martens. Van Alphen creates amazing dynamics with themes and echoes, and his early warning style gives players a chance to make perfect entries, like the horns’ surprise entry in this movement, which was clean and sharp. Trumpets demonstrated excellent ppp control in the peaceful close.

3. I found myself enjoying the sound of the orchestra, and noticing the extent to which Van Alphen has mastered the technique of giving instruction ahead of time, letting the orchestra know what to expect, while keeping the tempo. He is graceful to watch, leading this waltz with the beats at the top of his baton, occasionally giving a precognition of a change in dynamics, or an entry.

4. The final movement opened with a rousing fanfare by the trumpets, announcing a sweeping Brahmsian melody by cellos and basses. Van Alphen’s tempo was exciting and crisp, his brilliant dynamics allowing for the full Roman Circus feel when the trumpets returned, later contrasted by the beautiful floating 5th in the strings, that supports the return of the soaring Brahmsian melody on the cellos and oboe. The finale was rousing, and magnificent.

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