Reviewed by Andy Wilding
Conductor: Arjan Tien
Soloist: Melven Tan
Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall Thursday 12 May 2016
Curtain-raiser: Cape Town Philharmonic Youth Wind Ensemble, Faan Malan
Hidas – Capriccio
I am always glad to see Cape Town’s youth orchestras performing – its a reminder that hundreds of young people are practising their art and honing their skills to be able to play the kind of music that some fear is in danger of becoming extinct. Last Thursday, the CPYWE reassured us that the future of classical music is in capable hands. We were served a meticulously rehearsed and synchronous aperitif, fresh and light with twinkling percussion on xylophone and marimba. Malan captured the capricious yet well conceived nature of the work.
Puccini – Capriccio Sinfonico
This caper begins rather seriously, revealing exceptional control from horns and brass, before opening out expansively with sweeping strings and heavenly harp. I was not alone in wondering why the double-basses were positioned on the left of the stage. I tweeted “What madness is this!!” But after the concert, Maestro Arjan Tien explained the method in the madness: apparently it was Wagner’s fault.
I was surprised to learn how little regard is given to the composer’s positioning of the orchestra on the stage. Understandably, the layout needs to be flexible to accommodate the vast variety of different performing venues, but it is usually the conductor who has the final say on layout. Ever the extremist, Wagner conducted his own works with the all bass on the right of the stage, (tuba, trombones, bassoons, double basses) and all the treble on the left (violins). We usually see the CTPO lining up this way because Wagner was extremely influential to composers like Debussy and Strauss, and his conducting legacy continued through Furtwängler into the recording age. BUT up until Mahler’s time, Maestro Tien explained, it is very likely that the treble and bass were evenly balanced stereophonically across the stage, with violins in front left and right, and bass at the back, double basses left and brassy windy bass right. Having completely disorientated everyone, Tien delivered an individual, decisive interpretation, lifting interesting details out from a wide volumetric oceanic orchestra.
Mendelssohn – Piano Concerto No. 1
Elevated from a short orchestral crescendo, Melvyn Tan entered at precisely the orchestra’s level, like Jack Sparrow stepping onto that jetty from the mast of his sinking ship. This concerto is such a bright jewel, such a darling, every moment is precious and so swiftly changing, a pas de deux between piano and orchestra, where balance is crucial. Tan’s nonchalant control was quite breath-taking, matching the orchestra’s hight and volume with a confidence that indicated either insanity, or skill beyond imagination. His bars often stretched plastically, as if to prolong the beauty of the composer’s ideas, and yet he was always on tempo. His attention to detail was meticulous, perfectly dotted rhythms even through rapids that would frighten lesser pianists into abandoning the dots, and holding on for dear life. His intensely individual style and fantasy-free interpretation is characterised by beautiful dynamic expression, water-tight synchronism, and a sense of adventure that made his dance with the CTPO exciting and fun, like playing with an echo. The piano and orchestra parts are so close that at times they finish each other’s sandwiches. Conductor Tien’s arrangement of the stage, which he believes Mendelssohn to have used, positioned the pianist in a close chamber group with violin Farida Bacharova behind him and first cello Kristiyan Chernev to his left, and Tan made full use of this in his close connection with the orchestra principals. In the softness of the Andante, Tan continued to shine, revealing masterful dynamic variation, even during a trill. The orchestra responded warmly – there was the most wonderful moment between celli, violas, double-basses and horns. We don’t often see a full house standing ovation but Tan earned one, demonstrating perfect balance in a rare combination of dexterity, power, and playfulness.
Brahms – Symphony No. 2
The Allegro opened serenely and pastorally, so peaceful, just the slightest movement of Tien’s baton. The strings, although confusingly placed, sounded wonderful and warm. Before I properly understood the arrangement, I noted: “…it may even be that placing the double-basses on the left and swapping the 2nd violins and celli, adds to the roundness of the sound.” But the more I listened, the more I became aware that hearing the double-basses on the left was actually changing the whole sound – kind of reverse stereo! But I loved it for more than just the novelty because bass instruments have a totally different texture from each other, and their textures are more identifiable when panned left and right. Violins almost always play in two parts, and these two parts are more identifiable when panned left and right. The ensemble work in the third movement between Oboe Sergei Burdukov and first row celli pizzicato was sublime. There are any number of terrifying moments in the final movement, Tien and the CTPO mastered them all. He has a clear, decisive style, seemingly all-encompassing, with a great ear for detail and phrasing, the first note of runs neatly accentuated. He navigated the off-beat confluence of merging parts brilliantly, knitting them together at a most spirited allegro, so that each part landed exactly where it needed to. The symphony was Brahmsian – proud, noble, flowingly regal, and rhythmically tight through extremely challenging syncopation.
Maestro Tien returns to conduct the CTPO next Thursday:
Britten – Passacaglia from Peter Grimes
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No 2
Mendelssohn – Symphony no. 3 “Scottish”
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