SYMPHONY CONCERT. Thursday 4 April 2019. At Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Bernhard Gueller, soloist Álvaro Siviero; Beethoven: Overture: The Creatures of Prometheus; Bach: Concerto for Cembalo No 1 in D minor, BWV 1052; Brahms: Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68.

Pianist Álvaro Siviero
Pianist Álvaro Siviero

Deon IRISH reviews

THE three B’s: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. How very satisfying!

It was particularly nice to hear some Bach at this venue again, after a very long absence. One concedes, of course, that the orchestral works of Bach were not written for the modern symphony orchestra and that the impact of the original instrument movement has done a lot to alienate whole sections of the musical public from listening to Baroque works performed in the symphonic context. But that does not require a complete banishment.

In 1801, a celebrated dancer and choreographer, Salvatore Vigano, visited Vienna and conceived a ballet to be dedicated to the Emperor, based on the legend of the Titan, Prometheus, who infused two clay manikins  with sacred fire, with ultimately tragic consequences. Beethoven was persuaded to write music for the ballet – of which only the overture has remained in the general repertoire. (Bits of the remainder were used in other contexts, including the contredanse which became the Finale of the Eroica Symphony).

A wonderful account!

Gueller led the orchestra in a very good reading of this short but vibrant work: the opening, strangely modulating chords (perhaps depicting the aberrational – even disharmonious – task the Titan had undertaken) were full of mystery; the succeeding vibrant passage work (delivered with taut accuracy by the strings) full of the energy of Creation. A wonderful account!

There followed Bach’s first keyboard concerto, in D minor, written for harpsichord but here played – as was virtually universal practice from the dawn of the fortepiano until the last quarter of the previous century – on its more modern equivalent.

I do not find this change of character unduly disturbing. The Baroque composers were far from bothered about which instrument played what role; rather in the manner of many jazz musicians, a gig was a gig and one made music with whatever instruments were available. Much of the orchestral music was performed in aristocratic establishments having varied complements in their chambers orchestras, so flexibility was required. Bach himself trotted out versions of the same concerto for violin or oboe; flute and oboe were often regarded as interchangeable – and either might be assigned to a solo violin or even rewritten for keyboard.

Entertainment aplenty

This very concerto started life as a (now lost) violin concerto, the music of the first two movements of which were also subsequently employed by the composer in his cantata No 146: “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen” (“We must pass through much Tribulation to enter the Kingdom of God.”). A consideration of this usage of the music – and the text to which it is assigned – puts paid to a lot of Romanticized and anachronistic nonsense about the nature of Baroque music. Of course there are moments of true Romanticism in Bach: no-one can listen to (to give just one example) an aria like the “O Mensch bewein” in the Matthew Passion without appreciating just how tautly Bach could marry music to a text. But for much of the time his music is an end in itself; a source of fascination, stimulation, entertainment or comfort.

Well, this performance engendered fascination and entertainment aplenty; and not a little introspection in the soulful Adagio, with its highly ornamented solo line arabesquing freely over the stern rigidity of the passacaglia bass. This deeply poignant movement was, I thought, the highpoint of the performance.

I enjoyed the vigorous assertion of the opening movement, the sequential writing creating splendid forward drive and its rhythmic figures and off-beat stresses providing stimulating variation of the pulse.  The work is a nightmarish memory test for the soloist; the passage work is so repetitive, but subtly altered, as to have exactly the effect of the interior of a maze, each entry looking invitingly similar, each however leading to quite different destinations. Siviero handled almost all with aplomb – there was one false turn which was neatly busked until the right path was re-established in a couple of bars – and with a delightful sense of instrumental style.

A Steinway does not sound like a harpsichord. But, in the right hands, the essential musical elements of the earlier instrument can be well-enough transposed to the more modern instrument. The name András Schiff springs immediately to mind. This soloist is very much in the same school.

The final allegro was, however, too much of a romp for my taste. The tempo was pushed to a level at which some individual figurations became mere blurs and in which much of the orchestral imitative or interpolative writing was put beyond any elegant execution. Still, a great delight to hear this composer in this venue once again. Now, how about one of his orchestral overtures?

Gueller has given us numerous fine accounts of Brahms symphonies over the years, including (according to my recollection) performances of this symphony in 1997, 2003 and 2009. (The work itself has also been conducted during this period by Schwarz, Yampolsky, van Alphen and Panteleev; and also by Charles Dutoit on tour with the Toronto Orchestra.)

This was another fine reading by Gueller of a work which is one of the great symphonic achievements of Western civilization, there being little to cavil at in an account which remained faithful to the score and which never lost its way through what is ultimately a vast architectural construction.

Full of musical architecture

Strange to use the word “architecture” concerning a work with such overt links to landscapes: the unforgettable theme of the finale – first announced on the horn – dates from a walking holiday Brahms had enjoyed in the mountains around Lake Thun in Switzerland, from where he had written a postcard to Clara Schumann, setting out this theme and commenting that he had heard it played “today” by an Alphorn.

Yet the symphony is full of musical architecture and frequently of a novel character, perhaps in pursuit of the composer’s innate nervousness of not being seen merely as a Beethoven imitator.

Gueller’s reading was relished by an orchestra that was largely on form (the oboe solos were perhaps not entirely successful and the trombone chorus a little maudlin.) On the other hand there was some lovely violin, flute and clarinet contributions and the contribution of timpanist Müller quite literally outstanding.

CPO: Soloist Álvaro Siviero
Conducted by: Bernhard Gueller
Review: A Deon Irish symphony review