Alexander Ramm, Conrad van Alphen, CTPO – Balakirev, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams

Reviewed by Andy Wilding

Conductor: Conrad van Alphen
Soloist: Alexander Ramm
Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall, Thursday 28 April 2016

Balakirev – Tamara
What a seductive entrance to the Autumn Symphony Season! This tone poem is a glistening example of Russian orientalism, beautifully interpreted and performed with succinct entries and excellent control by van Alphen and the CTPO. The orchestra described a certain anxiety on which alluring sensuality uneasily balanced, depicting the dark fetish of the title character. Tamara (from a poem by Mikhail Lermontov) waylays travellers in her tower… and when she tires of their company she kills them and flings their bodies into the River Terek. Van Alphen lead an exciting adventure through the mountains and gorges of the Caucasus – highlights of which were a riveting accelerando into the allegro section – Immaculately synchronous! – and a heart-stopping Arabian dance by Sergei Burdukov and Eugene Trofimczyk (oboe and snare drum), demonstrating incredible control at ppp.

Kudos to the artistic direction of the orchestra, to program a work by the most important, and yet least famous member of “The Five”. Balakirev was the founder and mentor of the Russian nationalist group that included Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Cui, and himself. In the hardly known Tamara, completed in 1882, we hear in many places exact melody patterns and chord progressions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s extremely famous Scheherazade, composed 6 years later in 1888.


Alexander Ramm, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, Conrad van Alphen

Alexander Ramm after the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and Conrad van Alphen

Tchaikovsky – Variations on a Rococo Theme
Both Alexander Ramm and his cello strike an immediate presence on the stage – from the first touch of his bow during tuning, one could hear the  phenomenal tone of his instrument, the simple open fifths resonating and echoing in the ceiling. So it was no immediate surprise that his sound was amazing, with outstanding projection, but his impressive accuracy was somewhat eye-widening. Deceptively easy-going, the first variations merely hint at what is to come. The delightfully virtuosic passages were executed with bumblebee-like nonchalance, beautiful romanticism, and Paganiniesque flare. Through the evolution of variations, Ramm revealed a tasteful, deliberate vibrato, flawless intonation (I reserve this word for exceptional cases) and double stops that took the roof off the pallet. And what beautiful tone! At one point a sustained note right down on the C string could be heard resonating above the full orchestra.

Charismatic, obviously talented, and giving a performance to rival Maria Kliegel last year, Alexander Ramm left us wanting more, dreaming of Elgar, Dvořák, or Schumann in the near future. Let’s hope he likes it here!


Alexander Ramm, Conrad van Alphen, Louis Heyneman

Alexander Ramm, Conrad van Alphen and Louis Heyneman after the concert

Vaughan Williams – Symphony no. 2 (A London Symphony)
Van Alphen has a visible confidence in the CTPO that speaks of their skill and ability. At times he engages mostly with eye contact and only minimal movement, as if to let them do what they know because they are doing it well. To indicate specific instruction he becomes animated, to which the orchestra is very responsive, and achieves incredible dynamic surges and recessions. Always reserving enough for the climaxes, he has a natural feeling of the full capacity of the orchestra’s sound and technique. The entry into the scherzo was jaw-dropping, a trill in the winds with pizzicato quavers on strings, perfectly synchronous. There were memorable moments by Suzanne Martens and Jana van der Walt (violin and harp), and Paula Gabriel (viola), but the show-stealer for me was Bridget Wilson’s piccolo solo – beautifully interpreted. It’s so lovely to hear the lower register of the piccolo’s voice in such a magical way, so Pan-like.


Conrad van Alphen, Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra

Conrad van Alphen after the Vaughan Williams Symphony no. 2, with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra

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