CPO Symphony Concert conducted by Daniel Boico
Conductor Daniel Boico

SYMPHONY CONCERT. 1 November, 2018. At Cape Town City Hall; CPO conducted by Daniel Boico, soloist Francois du Toit; Respighi: Gli Uccelli; Chopin: Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21; Rajna: Video Games; Poulenc: Sinfonietta, FP 141.

DEON IRISH reviews

This was an unusually lengthy concert, but memorable for its recognition of the 90th birthday of Thomas Rajna and a gem of a performance of the Chopin concerto.

Francois du Toit is Associate Professor of Piano in the University of Cape Town and a frequent – and welcome – soloist with this orchestra. He sprang to prominence when he was the soloist with the then CTSO on its tour to Taiwan in 1988, playing the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Piano Concerto, conducted by David de Villiers. He subsequently participated in a fine recording of the work with the same orchestra, under the direction of Omri Hadari.

On this occasion we heard him in Chopin’s F minor concerto, the earlier of the two the composer wrote, although numbered as the second due to the order of publication.

Pianist Francois du Toit
Pianist Francois du Toit

Hovering in serene contemplation

Du Toit always gives the impression of being thoroughly business-like in what he does. There is a notable absence of affectation or emotional exhibitionism; he sits at the piano with the sort of quiet concentration one might expect from an accountant at his desk during just another day at the office. But the magical figures he conjures would be quite sufficient to rectify even the misaligned Steinhoff records.

This concerto was written by the 19 year old composer not long after his first concert tour to Vienna, where he gave two successful recitals – both featuring enthusiastically received variations on Polish folk music. It is perhaps not surprising that both this concerto – written in 1829 – and the E minor concerto of the following year accordingly conclude with finales based on Polish dances.

But, whereas the E minor concerto (the first to be published) was written in the revolutionary year of 1830 and is full of nationalist fervour, the earlier concerto was inspired by a far more commonplace circumstance – a youthful love affair: in Chopin’s case, the unrequited passion for a fellow student at the Warsaw Conservatory, Konstancia Gladkowska. As he wrote to a close friend, “Six months have elapsed, and I haven’t yet exchanged a syllable with her of who I dream every night – she who was in my mind when I composed the Adagio of my Concerto.”

The concerto nevertheless retains an overtly nationalist feel which, although not narrowly attributable to political upheavals, is inherently related to the sounds of his homeland. “Chopin knows what sounds are heard in our fields and woods, he has listened to the song of the Polish villager, he has made it his own and has united the tunes of his native land in skilful composition and elegant execution.” (From a review of the first performance in Warsaw on 17 March, 1830.)

Beguiling pianism of the composer

The rather four-square orchestral introduction finally gave way to the more beguiling pianism of the composer, his undeniable strength. Chopin’s orchestration is subjected to frequent criticism, despite his having cleared up some of the more obvious misjudgements of his initial draft. In truth, I find the accompaniment of the prominent piano solo line entirely consonant with the composer’s apparent intention; what is less successful are the purely orchestral episodes, in which his relative lack of orchestral insight does become apparent.

So, on this occasion, it was also with the piano entry that matters musical attained a superior level, with du Toit requiring no more than a few bars to establish his musical understanding and technical affinity to the compositional attributes of this most singular of pianistic composers.

To quote myself, from a review of a performance by Aleksandar Madzar: “Many commentators have noted that the pianistic writing is such as to make the hearer almost forget that there is an orchestra. That is so, but only if the pianist is up to mesmerising the audience with the sheer beauty of his offering and the orchestra is supple enough to match the subtle fluctuations in rhythm which characterize the solo line.”

Well, Du Toit is no mean mesmeriser either, and certainly strung the hall with lines of limpid beauty, configurations spun in extraordinarily evenly matched strands, whirling off in colourful arabesques or hovering in serene contemplation.

His left hand is quite secure and seemingly instinctively placed, this sense of position making apparently light work of the archetypal Chopin separated chord bass. But the left hand is required to attain a more equal role in the slow movement, in which the apogee is reached in a rhapsodic recitative of succeeding arabesques, 14ths, 5ths and 10ths, written in octaves. Du Toit managed to align right and left hands in this episode with delicate assurance.

The final moto perpetuo mazurka was utterly infectious, featuring rhythmic drive and glittering passage work. The 19 year old composer was an ardent nationalist and the first performance of this work occurred but six months before the outbreak of the Polish revolt of 1830, an event more narrowly associated with his E minor concerto.

Daniel Boico and the orchestra can feel well satisfied with their accompaniment; it was gratefully supple, following the rubati of the soloist with considerable skill and musical insight. The bassoon contribution in the Larghetto (not in fact an Adagio) was particularly ear-catching.

Boico and the orchestra will understand my concentrating this review on this fine performance by a prominent local artist. But equally notable was the performance of Rajna’s Video Games, a work I reviewed at its first performance conducted by David de Villiers in the Artscape Opera House on 29 August 2002 – and at which concert du Toit was also the soloist, in the Tchaikovksy 1st Piano Concerto.

As I wrote at the time, “The piece is a patchwork of musical quotations and thematic references, interspersed with explosions, ribald musical raspberries and the occasional outburst of a triumphant game-winning paean. The players participate both as musicians and spectators, cheering on competitors and applauding successes. The whole thing is a hoot, with the audience laughing outright in delighted recognition of themes, electronic events and outcomes.”

Composer Thomas Rajna
Thomas Thomas Rajna

Assured orchestration

It hasn’t lost its sparkle in the intervening years and remains quintessentially Rajna in its assured orchestration and infectious good humour. What made the performance particularly special was to have the composer – as part of his 90 birthday celebrations – playing the celesta in the performance. The orchestra’s CEO Louis Heynemann made the trenchant observation that he must be the only 90 year-old ever to have played as a member of any of the orchestras that have graced this stage. It made for a very happy event.

For the rest, the opening Respighi suite based on various 17th and 18th keyboard pieces depicting various birds, shows its obvious cozenage to the Antiche arie e danze suites of the same composer, its 1928 origins putting it after the first two Antique suites, but before the third.

The most successful movement was the witty depiction of Rameau’s La Gallina (Hen), a clucking, strutting and scratching conception of genius. Less successful was this account of Pasquini’s Il Cucú (Cuckoo), in which orchestral ensemble was a little less cohesive than required.

The concert concluded with Poulenc’s Sinfonietta, an unusual and welcome addition to this orchestra’s concert repertoire. The performance was full of vivid colours and a good deal of humour, with engaging orchestral playing and a firm grip on the considerable complexities of the score from conductor Boico. The performance engendered unfailing interest and was suitably warmly received.

What: CPO Symphony Concert
Reviewer: A Deon Irish review