Concert Review: Mozart, Chen / He, Mahler – Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, Martin Panteleev

Reviewed by Andrew Wilding

Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall, Thursday 5 February 2015

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Mozart, Idomeneo Overture – CTPO, Martin Panteleev
There was something crisp and clean about last night’s overture that shifted the paradigm of the day from which we had only minutes ago arrived, and brought an immediate order and clarity to one’s thoughts. Perhaps it was the subtle flow of fresh air from the high open windows in the City Hall – or maybe it was Mozart’s manicured musical manifolds! – But I put it down to a high level of skill within the orchestra, who presented a polished and impressive performance.
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Shen / He, Butterfly Lover’s Concerto – Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, CTPO, Martin Panteleev
The Concerto was written in 1959 by Chinese composers Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, based on a legend: the Butterfly Lovers, Jin Dynasty, c400CE. Chen and He were students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and although the work is written in western tonality and harmony, to western ears it does sound very Chinese indeed! I found it necessary to unhinge my western musical expectations, because they were getting in the way of the beautiful emotional expression of the work. Much like watching a “foreign” film, I enjoyed it much more with an open mind. As a free sound, without any judgement or comparison, it holds all the beauty and simplicity of the Tao – ebbing and flowing like the tide.

The opening scene was breath-taking – dawning over misty pointy mountains, a flute begins to sing in a near-by tree, answered by an oboe paddling in the bulrushes at the edge of a hazy mirror lake. The violin appears enchantingly, her haunting pentatonic melody and compelling warmth of tone counterpointed by drops and splashes of harp and piano. The movements are different flows of tempo that showcase the violin with a similar focus to Paganini. Hou said in her interview that the concerto is like an opera for violin, and there are lovely duets with the cello, beautifully characterised by Kristiyan Chernev – deep, moody, and Dvorakian. Although “folky” to western ears, the violin part is quite virtuosic, with a cadenza reminiscent of Kriesler’s Brahms. Hou’s alluring legato double stops left more than a few loose hairs on her bow! She is an engaging and emotional player, as comfortable talking to a concert-hall full of people as she is performing this highly technical concerto.

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Mahler, Symphony No. 5 – CTPO, Martin Panteleev
What an opening! David Thompson’s spectacular triumphant trumpet’s victory tragically turned to ashes, and Mahler emerged like a dark phoenix, in horns, tuba, and trombones. This symphony can only be a marathon for conductors and orchestras alike. The CTPO performed with outstanding focus and skill, with conductor Panteleev displaying a deep mastery of his art, methodically weaving and splicing fragments of parts like short strands of fibre-glass. As each part decayed and was replaced by another I wondered at the complexity of this symphony, composed by – lets face it: an extremely complicated person.

The Adagietto was sublime. As Mahler took refuge from the troubles of his earlier mind, we rested with him, leaving behind all the fragmentation, insanity, and schizophrenia of unfinished themes and entries that faded into disappointment after disappointment. The absolution was immaculate, a signature performance of wonderful dynamics and mastery of balance.

Then: the fugue – like a new mind sprouting from a seed – clear and perfect in it’s order and harmony. The emotion on the stage was visible, the playing was spectacular, and Panteleev’s interpretation seemed to conceptualise the perfection of imperfection. There are moments in the finale where Mahler slips back into confusion and abandonment of earlier themes (he even abandons an entire climax, never to be seen again) but: “This is Mahler 5th.” Panteleev seemed to say. “This is how it goes, and that in itself is perfection.”

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