SYMPHONY CONCERT. 21 October 2021. At Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Bernhard Gueller, soloist Roxanne Steffen. ALLAN STEPHENSON MEMORIAL CONCERT: A Cape Town Overture (1978); Burlesque for Double Bass and Small Orchestra (1974); Brahms: Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68. DEON IRISH reviews.

This concert was recorded before a restricted audience (amongst whom I was fortunate to be present), for streaming between 11 and 15 November 2021, giving rise to the relatively unusual circumstance that this review may well be read by some readers prior to their actually listening to the concert. So, in this hopefully waning Covid environment, reviews of symphonic concerts might now perform a practical function as well as having an aesthetic purpose.

The concert served as a memorial to Allan Stephenson, who tragically succumbed to complications following pneumonia on 2 August, 2021. The news of his death was a truly unexpected shock to many of us who knew him. He always exuded an aura of such vibrancy as to appear seemingly beyond any immediate risk of mortality.

Bernhard Gueller: Big Symphonies
The CPO was conducted by Bernhard Gueller

CTSO flautist Lucien Grujon

Allan’s association with Cape Town arose when he arrived as the newly-appointed sub-principal cello of the then Cape Town Symphony Orchestra, almost half a century ago, in 1973. Many people might be familiar with his music without having ever heard his name: for the opening work of this concert, A Cape Town Overture, written in 1978, was followed just a year later by the jaunty Concertino for Piccolo”, written for then principal CTSO flautist, Lucien Grujon, and subsequently recorded by him with the CTSO under the direction of the composer.

The infectious finale of that work – which might best be described as a sort of hornpipe-march – is regularly heard as a signature tune on FMR, with the taxing harpsichord part crisply realized by Barry Smith. It is, in many ways, a perfect exemplar of Stephenson’s musicality personality – which to a large extent mirrored his person: amiable and engaging, with an irrepressible sense of humour coupled with a wry cynicism.

From many conversations with him over the years, I learned how much he envied the creativity of the great symphonists of the last century, particularly Sibelius and Shostakovich. Well, although he might not have thought of them with quite the same regard, his own creativity always seemed to me to be closer to a Prokofiev or a Poulenc. And that is certainly no mean epitaph.

Gueller got this concert off to an invigorating start with this relatively early overture, so typical of the composer in its quirky rhythms, idiomatic string writing and cheeky employment of folk music elements. It speaks of a newcomer who is still revelling in the sometimes exotic experience of what was, to him, still a new environment – although one which was perhaps already on the way to becoming a home.

Burlesque for Double Bass

This work was followed by a second early composition, also written for one of the CTSO principal players: the Burlesque for Double Bass, written for Zoltan Kovats in 1974. The work was subsequently performed by the celebrated bassist, Leon Bosch, in Johannesburg in 2004; at his request, the composer embarked on the Concerto for Double Bass of 2005. Bosch and the CPO, with the composer conducting, recorded both works (together with his Concerto for Cello and Full Orchestra, with Peter Martens as soloist) in a very fine CD that was issued in 2011.

My copy of this recording was a gift from the composer and is inscribed: “To Deon – Enjoy with a good red wine. Allan Stephenson”.

I should have liked to have been able to follow his instruction for this performance; but, even without the additive, I listened to Roxanne Steffen’s very fluent account with no lack of enjoyment. The work displays the instrument to telling – if rather transitory – effect; most effectively in the cantabile melodic writing, which Steffen conveyed with considerable warmth, if slightly less than full projection.

Gueller led the orchestra in neatly efficient realization of the generally cleverly conceived score – for string orchestra with sparse woodwind additions. One must concede that it does have a tendency to overuse sequential writing. Nevertheless, the performance flowed to a happy conclusion, rendered slightly unsatisfactory by the rather perfunctory concluding bars.

I have commented before on how many accounts of Brahms symphonies Gueller has given us over the years, including (according to my recollection) performances of this first symphony in 1997, 2003, 2009 and 2019. (This is not to mention at least another half dozen performances of the work by other conductors.)

I am really not sure that this was a good choice for a return to symphonic duties by orchestral players after the long Covid layoff. I know the orchestra has certainly not been idle; but much of the recording work they have been engaged in has been somewhat artificial in terms of seating and playing conditions – particularly the isolation screens. In addition, some significant players have left and the orchestra is now accordingly in something of a rebuilding phase.

So there were almost inevitably aspects of this performance that fell considerably short of the remembered sound of many of the performances I mentioned, given in this very venue. Chief amongst the problems was the wind choir, which has lost a good deal of cohesion and instinctive interaction.]

Roxane Steffen in Stephenson Memorial Concert
Soloist Roxanne Steffen

A marvellous score

There is a great difference between playing in an ensemble with people one is thoroughly familiar with and those who – however expert – are novel. In the result, dynamic balances were inevitably not as homogenous as one would have expected. Even more importantly, wind chording (and, on occasion, intonation) was frequently indifferent, something which does become an irritation after a while and which is surely at least partially the result of the regrettably necessary isolation screens.

I suppose that these aspects will gradually resolve as players become more familiar with making music with each other, in these conditions. (Interestingly, these deficiencies were not as noticeable in the earlier, smaller-scaled works; it might well be that less densely conceived orchestration is better suited to present performance circumstances.)

Not that there was any criticism of Gueller’s reading of a marvellous score, or of his recreation of its vast architecture. These criticisms notwithstanding, there was a great deal to enjoy in this account and certain elements of the performance do deserve unqualified praise: the evocative oboe solo, the celebrated horn and flute solos of the finale, the trombones’ solemn chorale and the always atmospheric timpani presence.

Best of all was simply being back at a concert in The City Hall. That was enough to send me home in a happy mood, to pour myself a glass of the prescribed linctus and drink a toast, to Allan, and to times past.

Stream: Get CPO Allan Stephenson Memorial Concerts tickets here.

What: Allan Stephenson Memorial Concert review
Where: Cape Town City Hall
Stream: 11 – 15 November 2021