Review: CPO Summer Music Festival – Beethoven Triple

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Brandon PhillipsFor the finale of the CPO’s Summer Season, it was the turn of resident conductor Brandon Phillips to lead the orchestra. He wisely chose to keep the cellos and violas switched around, as they were in the previous three concerts.

From the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fidelio Overture, Phillips stamped his individuality on the music. Although, he learnt a few things from playing under Arjan Tien for three weeks. The most important remnant was the authentic period phrasing and articulation that Tien had crafted. But unlike the esteemed guest conductor, Phillips was far less animated on the podium.

Some of his contrasts in tempo may have been a bit extreme, notably the very slow Adagio bars following the lively Allegro opening passage. However, he had the confidence to make one believe in his interpretation.

Beethoven’s tricky Triple Concerto seems like it should be three times the fun of a regular concerto, but on this occasion expectations were not met.

Pianist Albie van Schalkwyk, violinist Samson Diamond, and cellist Anmari van der Westhuizen are all well regarded chamber musicians. This time, though, they did not meld seamlessly as a trio. An over-reliance on sheet music – used by soloists as a crutch rather than a life support – made for a seat-of-the-pants performance.

There were moments of beautiful duet playing between the violin and cello – both players members of the Odeon Quartet – and flourishes of brilliance from the piano. Van Schalkwyk, with his back to his partners, traipsed precariously between accompanying and leading. Diamond can’t be faulted much, and was perhaps the best prepared of the three. Van der Westhuizen, on the other hand, at times sounded colourless and rough.

After the interval, Brandon Phillips conducted an exquisite rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique” symphony. The French sobriquet of the sixth symphony is mistranslated, meaning “passionate” or “emotional” in the original Russian.

Passion and emotion poured out of the orchestra from the start of the first movement. Phillips led them through extreme contrasts, ranging from nuanced sensitivity to a frenzy of angst.

The 5 beats to a bar limping waltz of the second movement was elegant and seamless, with nary a hint of wrong-footedness.

Pinpoint accuracy continued throughout the third movement, with the brass section sounding particularly good. As is usual, some audience members were tricked into applauding.

But the real ending of the symphony is far from joyous. The final movement was a few minutes of sombre, heartfelt desperation, starting with an anguished sob, and ending sparsely with a few pizzicato double bass notes drifting away.

Brandon Phillips had proved his worth, fulfilling the promise he showed when he won the inaugural Len van Zyl conductors’ competition in 2010. It was heartening to hear him in a concert hall usually graced by international guest conductors. He will be back in charge for the last concert in the Autumn symphony season.

Rudolph Maré

The CPO Summer Music Festival’s Beethoven Triple took place at the City Hall on 5 February 2017.

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