Reviewed by Andy Wilding
Conductor: Arjan Tien
Soloist: Paul Lewis
Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, City Hall Thursday 26 January 2017
BERLIOZ ROMAN CARNIVAL OVERTURE – BRAHMS PIANO CONCERTO NO.1 IN D MINOR OP.15 – BEETHOVEN SYMPHONY NO.5 IN C MINOR OP. 67
The 11th CTPO International Summer Music Festival opened with a refreshing sense of excitement and optimism that infused the concert from start from finish. In a quick speech from the stage before the overture, Cape Town Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson announced the budget of 46 million Rand to be invested in the refurbishment of the City Hall over a period of 4 years!! This music to the ears invited smiling high spirited applause and renewed our long standing hope that the city’s iconic centre of orchestral music would be restored to its former elegance. There was something of a Christmas morning to this concert, as if we had all been very good and Santa was giving us all the presents we always wanted. Lurking under the tree behind the other presents (second violins and violas) was a brand new Steinway, complete with red ribbon and bow. In another mini presentation before the concerto, orchestra CEO Louis Heyneman presented the keys to the piano to stage manager Salie Paulse, to further delighted applause. But this concert will be remembered for more than its heart warming sense of family, support, and success after perseverance far beyond expectation. The orchestra was on top form, and they had one of their favourite conductors leading them through a program that seemed as enjoyable to play as it was to hear.
Unusually, one noticed two conspicuously giraffe-like double-basses seated where the second violins would normally be on the left, and on closer inspection the second violins were sitting in the cello section and the celli were sitting in the violas and it was all rather confusing. But there is method in the madness, as Maestro Tien explained to me last year when he chose the same layout to conduct Melvyn Tan’s Mendelssohn 1 and Brahms second symphony with the CTPO on May 12. For practical and acoustic reasons, the layout of the orchestra has always been at the discretion of the conductor. Until Mahler’s time (1860 – 1911) it is very likely that the treble and bass were balanced equally across the stage: The violins are in front – 1sts on the left, and 2nds on the right. This creates a wonderful clarity as violins almost always play in two parts, and these two parts are more identifiable when panned left and right. Celli are in the centre for warm-heartedness, and double basses flank the cello section two on either side. Maestro Tien prefers this layout for works conceived before Mahler’s time – the entire classical period and a great number of romantic composers. Wagner (1813 – 1883) conducted his own works using the layout that is now considered modern, which is how we most often see the CTPO seated. The use by modern conductors of Wagner’s layout is due to his extremely high influence on composers like Debussy and Strauss and his continued legacy through Furtwängler into the recording age.
Arjan Tien has a precise clearly defined conducting style that seems to have a reassuring effect on the audience. His rhythmic visual upbeats project a demeanour of someone completely in control, calm, and easy to follow. His swelling crescendos are exhilarating, always leaving enough in reserve for a hair raising climax. Berlioz’ rousing galloping Roman Carnival theme recurs a number of times and each received a unique treatment. The overture may also be remembered for a stunning cor angles solo by Carin Bam and succinct precise percussion.
After some delightful ado to much applause involving the removal of a giant bow and ribbon from the shiny new piano, Maestro Paul Lewis took the stage. Things became somewhat surreal as the opening bars of Brahms’ 15th registered work erupted from tympani and brass. At this point the audience had a number of things to be excited about and it was hard to tell which was more fascinating: the sound of the new piano and how it differed from the previous one, or the phenomenal and faultless performance by a visiting international super star. The exposition of the concerto was for me quite a dreamy bemusing state of hypnosis where Lewis’ exceptional performance was unsurprising. I found my attention drawn to the bright singing tones of the decidedly beautiful new instrument, chosen from the factory in Hamburg by our own Maestro and professor François du Toit. The new piano is like the Mediterranean in sparkle, depth, mystery, and clarity all the way to the bottom.
In the second subject, I came to Lewis’ performance – gorgeous notes falling from the piano like soft rain. Lewis has mastered a remarkable artistic skill and control that stretches the timing of phrases in the span of his hand, never late, and yet so fluid. The development of the first movement rumbled in darkness and thunder… We were in the presence of Apollo! Such power. Accuracy. Elegance. It was a hair-standing-on-end performance that had us floating in our seats – a technically polished delivery of which any great pianists would be proud, imbibed with lyrical soul. He pronounces the profound in Brahms. The lilt in his line conveys a spontaneity as if improvising a story, the enchanted audience hanging on every word.
The interval was astonished.
Beethoven 5th Symphony, although standard repertoire, must be among the greatest challenges for a conductor. There is so much comparison, so many individuals in every audience and every orchestra having their own favourite version which they consider to be the benchmark. Arjan Tien led the CTPO in a distinct and individualistic interpretation that avoided the obvious without upsetting widely accepted norms. His treatment of the immortal and beloved ‘knocking of fate’ theme was crisp and dogmatic, with the answering line closely following the first, keeping a sense of movement and not over-labouring the obvious.
The City Hall has hosted one or two notorious cases of Beethoven Espresso performances, which many audience members and orchestra players found ridiculously fast (although this reviewer rather likes the pacey interpretations of David Zinman and Krystian Zimerman). As a piano student of Beethoven expert Dr. Stewart Young, I always enjoyed hearing about his internationally acclaimed doctorate research into Beethoven’s tempo markings. To present an all-too-short summery that no doubt excludes volumes of important facts: many modern researchers believe that Beethoven was using a faulty metronome and hence, some of his given tempi are not only impossible in many cases, but also contradict the Italian terms he gives (eg. Allegro con brio). Hence the wide scope for interpretation of the tempo of Beethoven’s works. A reliable source of reference is Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny who attended many contemporary performances of Beethoven’s works and played them himself, and from his notes it is possible to arrive at some astonishing reinterpretations of Beethoven’s tempi.
Tien’s tempi in the 5th symphony were exciting without raising too many eyebrows. My silent iPhone metronome app measured around 96 crotchets per minute for the first movement. This is by no means dawdling, but in my understanding Beethoven expected no less of a virtuosic performance from his orchestras as he did from his soloists. The languid opening bars of the second movement inspired a collective deep breath from the audience after the intensity and excitement of the Allegro. An easy 80 crotchets, it was a sensitive and lovely performance of perhaps the most well loved work in the classical repertoire, immaculately performed. Tien’s control over dynamics and the responsiveness of the CTPO is astounding: mid-phrase, an instrumentalist’s level can be brought up or down as if on a mixing desk.
The bridge into the fourth movement demonstrated Tien’s ability to make something old into something new, incredible suspense and trepidation as tympani and strings cross over thin creaking ice through the mist into the final movement. Even though we all knew what was coming, Tien brought the burst of triumphant fanfare that opens the finale in all its joy and relief, as if for the first time. He has an almost child like energy, irrepressibly jumping with excitement that is of course highly contagious and translates directly via the CTPO to the audience. However in that ecstatic state, Tien retains such attention to detail, artfully articulating Beethoven’s phrasing and accented notes. There seems to be a great sense of two-way trust between him and the CTPO as he brings them from full after-burn down to single threads and then back into glorious exploding fireworks. His tempo in the final movement accelerated to an exhilarating 110, and the CTPO obligingly ripped it up. They really are a formidable orchestra!
O reader, if you had a similar experience of this concert and feel strongly about supporting classical music in Cape Town, you can easily contribute to the already growing presence of the younger generation at symphony concerts by sharing this review amongst your friends, let them see what all the fuss is about, and bring a few of them with you to the next concert!