To conclude their autumn season, the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra brought some stormy weather. The programme was as varied as Cape Town’s four seasons in a day. The first half featured fascinating 20th century sounds by Britten and Prokofiev, and the second half returned to a more familiar 19th century with Mendelssohn. As he did last week, Dutch conductor Arjan Tien adapted the orchestra layout to suit the music and the acoustics of the City Hall, to great effect.
Benjamin Britten’s fantastic Peter Grimes is one of the most performed English operas today. When I last heard it as a student, it left me unmoved. But listening to it again with more experienced ears, I was completely riveted. Britten captures the spirit of the rugged East England coast perfectly. He presents it in a new English style that’s modern without sounding like cats fighting on a piano or an orchestra falling down a staircase.
I arrived late, and had to listen from the back of the balcony. I missed the first viola solo, but I did catch the ominous climax, which foreshadows the death of yet another apprentice while in the service of the cruel Grimes. Calm returns again, and another beautifully plaintive viola solo ends the excerpt. As the last chord died away, Tien controlled the tension, keeping a long silence before he allowed the audience to applaud.
There were a few spots with timing problems in the first half of the programme, especially in the otherwise impressive brass section. I’m sure it will help to pay more attention to visual cues from the conductor.
Prokofiev’s second piano concerto is my highlight of the season. I am biased, though, since I am a great admirer of Russian music. It pays homage to his great compatriots, but with Prokofiev’s own unique modern touches. It was dedicated to a friend of his at the St Petersburg Conservatory, who committed suicide. The original score was burnt during the Russian Revolution, which Prokofiev had fled, but he reconstructed and revised the music a decade later. It’s easy to imagine the tumultuous political climate of the time being reflected in the music.
American pianist Bryan Wallick, now living in South Africa, delivered sensitive playing of this incredibly difficult work. Tien matched the orchestra’s loudness to match the piano, but I wished for more volume and passion at times.
There are many memorable moments in this concerto, but my favourite came in the first movement. Wallick played with an incredible range of dynamics and emotion in the long solo cadenza. He built the intensity beautifully before leading the orchestra into the powerful finale in which the sweeping strings and thundering brass were spine-tingling. The scherzo second movement is a relentless onslaught of notes, and Wallick drifted in and out of the orchestral timbre. The death march third movement was also exciting. The final movement is bookended by emotional outbursts from the piano and orchestra, and features haunting folk song-like melodies in the middle. A very long and well-deserved applause followed.
The CPO delivered their best playing of the season in Mendelssohn’s 3rd symphony. They were moving as one organism, feeling the music as the conductor felt it. Arjan Tien placed a pair of double basses on either side of the stage to balance the absence of tuba and trombones.
Mendelssohn was inspired to write the symphony while on holiday in Scotland, but only finished it 13 years later. One hears the mist and rolling hills of the Highlands in the music. Thankfully he spared us the bagpipes.
Mendelssohn’s well crafted orchestration gives the entire orchestra a moment to shine. The symphony has a surprisingly happy ending, like a rare ray of sunshine peeking through gloomy skies. The jubilant horns and triumphant trumpets provided a fitting conclusion to the night.
The CPO delivered four fantastic programmes during their autumn symphony season, but this one was my favourite. Their upcoming winter season is only three weeks away though, and it looks very enticing.
Bryan Wallick and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra performed at Cape Town City Hall on 19 May 2016.