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Review: Antonio Pompa-Baldi And The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra

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Antonio Pompa-BaldiI have one regret about the most recent performance of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra: I regret not having a recording of the magic the CPO made together with pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi.

If I did have a recording of its exquisite interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in D Minor Op. 30, it would be placed on my ‘most hallowed’ shelf next to the authoritative recording of Rachmaninoff playing this monumental work himself, and the renowned and contentious interpretation of virtuoso Martha Argerich. A merited affiliation for one of the best live performances I have ever had the pleasure to attend.

However, not all of the evening was magical. In fact, the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra got off to a very shaky start with an Overture from Carl Maria von Weber’s opera, Der Freischütz. The Overture is a delightful composition, a hallmark of the German spirit of those days where Sturm und Drang and classicism lived side by side. The work begins softly with the sweetest of melodies played by the horns, creating the illusion of a hunting scene in the Bohemian forests.

The audience was not, however, transported to another continent, time and age. We were very much stuck in Cape Town City Hall trying to figure out what kind of technical problem the horns were experiencing. It was unsteady, it was off-key and it was not pleasant. Conductor Arjan Tien tried his utmost to regain control of the faltering orchestra but poor ensemble playing and especially the uneven entry of the different instrumental sections at key points of the work left us anxious and apprehensive of what was to come.

And duly so, because next on the programme was Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in D Minor Op. 30  ̶  a work that has been described as one of the most difficult concertos in the repertoire. In the 1996 film Shine it was portrayed as the concerto that precipitated David Helfgott’s mental breakdown.  As acclaimed pianist Krystian Zimerman once said ‘…you don’t play Rachmaninoff concertos, you live them and this one [Rach 3], could almost be life-threatening…’

But the accolades for the soloist of the evening, Antonio Pompa-Baldi, were as daunting as the reputation of this monumental work. Pompa-Baldi won first prize at the 1999 Cleveland International Piano competition and the silver medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He is a Steinway Artist and has an extremely successful (and hectically busy) solo and chamber music career that extends across five continents. He also has a number of recordings to his name including an all Brahms disc (Azica) and with Centaur Records the complete Josef Rheinberger Piano Sonatas, the entire solo piano and chamber music output of Edward Grieg, an all Rachmaninoff CD, an all Schumann album and a two volume set of Hummel Piano Sonatas.  Shew.

Pompa-Baldi is currently serving as a Distinguished Professor of Piano at the esteemed Cleveland Institute of Music and recently won over South African audiences at the 4th Stellenbosch International Piano Symposium. (Read our review here). A deafening silence filled the hall as he took his seat behind the piano: an unassuming act which is actually quite interesting to observe as he sits very, very far away from the piano.

I clutched the side of my seat as conductor Arjan Tien lifted his baton and the ensemble of sounds formed the familiar opening theme of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. And then I dug my nails into the material as I heard the tempo they were playing at! Mentally I moved through the various sections of the first movement, aghast at how on earth they were going to sustain the rapidity. I could hardly breathe as, with restrained panic, I watched the silent communication between pianist, orchestra and conductor. But it was the lady sitting next to me who, in trying to stifle her spontaneous exclaims of delight with her hands, made me realise that Tien and Pompa-Baldi had everything under perfect control and that this was probably going to be one of the most exciting performances of this enigmatic work I was ever likely to see.

The audience was utterly spell-bound by the performance. It was the epitome of perfection, splendour and magnificent musicianship. But it was also fresh and different, giving a new interpretation of this well-known and revered composition that first premiered in November 1909. While initially I felt that Pompa-Baldi’s playing lacked restraint and that the accents to which he drew our attention were somewhat harsh, I was soon won over by his interpretation. There is nothing more exciting, in fact, than when an artist convinces you to let go of your preconceived ideas and allows you to discover themes and ideas that you never knew existed.

The music bolstered forward from the most delicate of moments where Pompa-Baldi sat with bowed head and arms hanging to the floor, to the build up of unparalleled climaxes. The accents that had bothered me at first started to emerge as beacons throughout the three movements, connecting new ideas to form a coherent whole. With the final triumphant gesture of conductor Arjan Tien’s baton, the audience collectively jumped to its feet and erupted in frenzied applause, some even stamping their feet.  A woman right at the front of the stage grabbed Pompa-Baldi’s hands and kissed them in admiration as the rest of the audience looked on. We were all utterly under Pompa-Baldi’s spell, stripped of all semblance of restraint and we did not care in the least!

The interval saw a feast of copious amounts of red wine and champagne and the release of much excited energy in lively conversation as we were none of us ready to move on from the magic we had just experienced. It was extremely difficult for most of the audience members to take their seats again for the final performance of the evening: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 5 in D Major.

Yet, the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra gave a convincing performance of this Vaughan Williams Symphony that is said to encompass the very essence of this composer’s style and contribution. The solo playing of concertmaster Suzanne Martens deserves particular accolade as does the soulful playing of my two favourite oboists, Sergei and Olga Burdukova. Special mention must also be made of the members of the Cape Philharmonic Youth Wind Ensemble, who gave an excellent performance of the evening’s curtain-raiser, Esprit de Corps by Robert Jager.

Capetonians can look forward to the next Symphony Concert on Thursday 23 August with conductor Theodore Kuchar and pianist Charl du Plessis.

Andra le Roux-Kemp

Pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi performed with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra at City Hall, Cape Town on 16 August 2012.

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