Reviewed by Andrew Wilding
Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall, Thursday 5 November 2015
Conductor: Bernhard Gueller
Haydn – Symphony no.83
Voiced mostly for strings, the Haydn symphony reminded us that in sheer numbers, strings make up the heart of the orchestra, poetic arguments aside. Their performance was synchronous, dexterous, and smooth, identifying them by any comparison as world class performers. An amazing ppp section by violas in the second movement faded into the tiniest silken thread, accentuating the ensuing fff entry – Haydn has a reputation for surprises. There is a skill that gifted performers have, of knowing how to use the reverberation of the hall, and waiting for the echo in a pause to disappear into the ceiling before continuing. An outstanding example is Maria du Toit playing the Francaix clarinet concerto earlier this year, and last Thursday, Gueller played the CTPO in the same exquisite fashion. The many pauses and dynamic variations of this symphony draw attention to the acoustics of the City Hall – a sticky wicket – but this writer and our previous visiting conductor Perry So are two among those who find the acoustics atmospheric and expansive when interpreted correctly, as Du Toit and Gueller are able to do.
Shostakovich – Concerto for Piano and string Orchestra (with trumpet)
Piano: Natalia Lavrova
Trumpet: David Thompson
Lavrova’s strength and speed are excellent, as is her accuracy and technical grasp of the many rapid rhythmic passages in this work, often featuring running octaves that would terrify even the most performance-hardened pianist. Her balance is graceful, allowing the instrumental soloists enough space to be heard, and mastering the frequent ensemble passages with trumpet. The dance macabre second movement was interpreted with an exiting blend of fearless modernism: stark, naked, vulnerable, and awkward; and intuitive romanticism: sensitive, gentle, and empathetic. This gave her concerto an enjoyable and exciting feel, with the ever-present awareness of timing – every bar in total synch with Gueller and the orchestra. The tempo change in the 3rd movement happened flawlessly and exhilaratingly, Lavrova delivering the composer’s sudden bursts of frenetic scurrying with effortless calm, while Gueller kept amazing balance into the cadenza and finale – a level 10 performance – quite astonishing.
Respighi – Fountains of Rome; Pines of Rome
If the performance of just one work could summarise and communicate the value of classical music; the reason why government should support symphony orchestras; the motivation behind the drive to secure and dedicate the City Hall to the exclusive performance and exhibition of serious music and art; and, heavens be praised, the motivation for city funding to maintain the magnificent City Hall organ, then Gueller’s performance with the CTPO of Respighi’s Fountains and Pines could in the very near future become the flagship in making classical music more accessible, without any loss of integrity. The performance was so deeply enchanting that it seemed enough to activate the cybernetically sterilised imaginations of the present school-bound generation, and inspire them to take up an instrument. If the masses are inspired, the government must provide, or fall.
There are far more important symphonic works that benchmark the evolution of classical music, but last Thursday’s performance of Respighi’s Fountains and Pines achieved one of those rare and phenomenal moments that span the hectares between the deeply academic minority, and the sugar-coated Disney-glazed majority. It was exciting and enticing – sensual strings, magical harps, glistening glockenspiels, and that unmistakable rumbling power of the City Hall organ that shakes the very floorboards. Who in that room could not have been inspired to ensure the continuation of the CTPO?
I was very glad that the two pieces, Fountains and then Pines, were performed consecutively. After a short break we were plunging back into the magic, even more fantastical than before. The list of technical accomplishments within every section of the orchestra would be tedious to read after the fact – (you had to be there…) although exception can be made for Daniel Prozesky, (clarinet) with his exceptional control and lyricism. The overall effect: mind-blowing! A resplendent partner to the softer “Fountains”, “Pines” was a glorious continuation that demonstrated the world class ability of the Cape Town Philharmonic. Gueller somehow always manages to make his work sound larger than life without breaking any of the rules. I for one believe that conducting is in many ways the humblest of vocations, and yet one that demands the highest level of intuitive skill and technical knowledge of every instrument, so that the magnitude of the work is more so revealed, than created. To my ear, this ethic manifests throughout Gueller’s work. The fourth movement emerged from a bridge section in which Respighi’s original nightingale recordings were digitally sampled from shellac record using modern software, and then played from the laptop of sound engineer genius Marek Pinski. A riveting development ensued, beginning with a march from timpani and double basses, joined by harps and horns, as more trumpeters walked in from off-stage, two more trombones appeared and joined in with the deluge of strings and winds, and the roar of the organ and bass drum … and Gueller in the centre of the climbing vortex with his baton, stirring and coaxing the maelstrom ever higher and deeper and wider … unbelievably achieving a crescendo from somewhere – I don’t know where he found any more volume – to deliver a coda that one felt as much in the bones, as heard in the ears, and both sensations were transcendental and sublime. This performance will not easily be forgotten!
More images here:
Maestro Gueller returns next Thursday with
cellist Maria Kliegel and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra:
Dvorak – Midday Witch
Bloch – Schelomo Hebraic Rhapsody
Bruch – Kol Nidrei
Beethoven – Symphony no. 7
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