Conductor Robert Moody made his Cape Town debut
Conductor Robert Moody made his Cape Town debut

CPO SYMPHONY CONCERT. Thursday, 6 June, 2019. At Cape Town City Hall; CPO conducted by Robert Moody, soloist Bryan Wallick. Dvorák: Overture, Muj Domov, Op 62; Barber: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op 38; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 4 in F minor, Op 36.

DEON IRISH reviews

Something obscure, something rare, and something very familiar. It all made for an intriguing programme.

The Dvorák overture is one that I have heard before (on checking, I found that I actually have three recordings of it!), although I have not listened to it in recent years. It dates from the period in which Dvorák was still an essentially nationalist composer, just emerging from obscurity.

That was in no small part due to his winning an Austrian stipendium for talented young artists in 1874, in which the adjudicators were Johann Ritter von Herbeck (director of the Imperial Opera and composer of the gorgeous Christmas motet, Pueri concinite), the noted music critic Hanslick, and Brahms. Indeed, Brahms became a champion of Dvorák’s music and was largely instrumental in persuading his own publisher, Simrock, to take on the young Czech.

Both Brahms and, more especially, Hanslick urged Dvorák to leave Prague and move to Vienna, where – they argued – his art would benefit from a wider horizon and a bigger non-Czech public following. In fact, he did eventually leave Prague in 1892, but for New York – where he spent three productive but increasingly homesick years.

It was during this sojourn that he visited Chicago for the World Exhibition of 1893 and, on 12 August, conducted his 8th Symphony, three of the Slavonic Dances and this overture, Muy Domov (My Home) for its “Czech Day”. Originally conceived as incidental music for a patriotic play, the overture contains pleasant enough writing, but has nothing of the vivid immediacy of the composer’s very next orchestral essay, the Scherzo capriccioso, or of the great later overtures.

Its inclusion in this programme was that of a by now somewhat obscure work of a major composer, which formed a pleasing if ultimately anodyne curtain-raiser to the major works to follow.

A true rarity on our concert platforms

First among these was Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, a true rarity on our concert platforms. It should be pointed out that the programme note (which the CPO obtained in good faith from the old CTSO’s programme bank) is – other than the opening paragraph – a word for word extract from David Ewen´s “The World of Twentieth-Century Music”, 2nd Edition.”

Barber began writing his piano concerto in March 1960. Ewen records this work as having been commissioned by the publishing house, G. Schirmer Inc., to mark the centenary of its founding.

According to the Grove entry, however, the Schirmer house in fact grew out of an earlier firm, Kerksieg & Bruesing,, which was established in 1848. Gustav Schirmer became manager of this concern in 1854 and, with Bernard Beer, took over the business in 1861. It was only in 1866 that Schirmer bought out Beer and established G. Schirmer Inc. So, the centenary in question was not so much the founding of Schirmer as the earlier takeover of Kerksieg & Bruesing.

In any event, it appears that John Browning was always the intended soloist for the first performance and the work was apparently written to display his particular keyboard skills. The second movement was not entirely original and was a reworking of an earlier elegy conceived for flute and piano, being somewhat extended in its new guise as a Canzona.

Having completed the first two movements by the end of 1960, inspiration evidently rather dried up and the work was then further delayed by the death of Barber’s sister in July 1961 and then by an invitation to attend the Congress of Soviet Composers in March the following year. It was accordingly not until 9 September of 1962 just 15 days before the scheduled premiere, that the final movement was completed, the soloist being Browning and the Boston Symphony being conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. The work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for 1963 and the Music Critics’ Circle Award in 1964.

Bryan Wallick and the CPO
Bryan Wallick

Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Arizona Musicfest

On this occasion, the soloist was Bryan Wallick (whom I last heard at this venue in 2012 in the Brahms D minor concerto conducted by Victor Yampolsky), and the conductor Robert Moody, making his Cape Town debut.

Moody is the music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and of the Arizona Musicfest and is that rarity among modern conductors: a man with an independent left hand. Whilst the Dvorák overture had not given him much opportunity of demonstrating his podium skills, this concerto – with its frequently jagged rhythmic stresses, abrupt alterations of mood and inherent problems of ensemble – certainly did. He proved to be an ideal interpreter of this intriguing concerto.

I recall not being entirely convinced by Wallick’s account of the Brahms (based largely on personal predilections); no such misgivings attended this hearing in which an assured technique and a big musical personality seemed perfectly attuned to the requirements of the score.

Significant tonal projection

The soloist has the honour of opening the work with an immediate declamatory cadenza that – with some orchestral interpolations – heralds the arrival of the agitated first subject. Wallick demonstrated significant tonal projection in this opening flurry – although not reaching the sheer power he was to demonstrate in the later and fuller cadenza. The first subject material afforded opportunity for a display of glittering and steely finger work, with some neat orchestral accompaniment and telling flute and horn solos.

The oboe solo introducing the second subject material sounded curiously thin – perhaps just a not particularly good reed on the night. The rather perfunctory development of these themes involved some nicely Prokofievian chordal shards before the relatively centrally-placed cadenza let loose a storm of pianistic passion. The movement continued with the further discussion of the principal subject material resolved serenely into its ultimately rather gentle conclusion (notwithstanding the last-minute outburst).

The Canzona does not entirely hide its true genesis; and, although it no longer exhibits the mien of an elegy, it remains a wistful reverie. The opening section (with harp in accompaniment) might indeed be mistaken for a slow movement nocturne in a flute concerto; but once the piano enters and develops an intensely introspective analysis of the theme (over some of Barber’s most delicate orchestral colours), the original conception is truly transmogrified.

I thought this was a terrific account, with a sensitively delivered solo line and some gorgeous colouring in the orchestral accompaniment.

The third movement really is very different to its precursors. Whether that might be explained by the insidious influences of the Soviet Composers at the Congress of 1962 is debatable; but there certainly does seem to be more of a Prokofiev in the aggressively spiky writing of the solo line and much of the transparent, even minimalist accompanimental writing calls to mind Stravinskian neo-Classicism.

Inspirations apart, the movement – which starts in what appears slightly perfunctory fashion – builds in energy and excitement to what is an undeniably invigorating conclusion, given full measure by these two fellow sons of the composer’s Land of the Free.

The evening concluded with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in F minor, Op 36. It is a work that is justifiably held in high regard, although by no means the most popular of the composer’s essays in the form. And yet it has all the best hallmarks of the composer: memorable melodies coupled to insightful harmonies; beautifully conceived instrumental solos; assured – even lush – string writing; blistering brass outbursts; driving rhythms and superb orchestral colours.

Not a bad check list for a conductor to tick off and Moody (and his players) managed high scores in almost all of them. The only element I found slightly lacking was the sheer self-indulgent beauty of some of the more lugubrious passages.

The modern world is curious in this regard; whilst the media seemingly afford opportunity for – perhaps even require – the display of an overt emotional reaction by all from politicians to celebrities to victims of personal tragedy, there nevertheless exists a scornful distaste of anything that might be characterized as being sentimental or displaying an inner despair.

And yet this is almost the bed-rock on which this symphony is founded. So, what I did find a little absent in this reading was a sense of self-pitying despair, so evident in the composer’s writings from the period and clearly informative of this work. The second movement fared least well in this regard, never quite achieving the sheer abandon that gives rise to an uneasy sense of suppressed hysteria and that makes of it a confession almost too distressing to be overheard.

Read our Robert Moody interview.

Bryan Wallick chats about moving back to the US. 

What: CPO conducted by Robert Moody
Where: Cape Town City Hall
When: Thursday, 6 June, 2019
Reviewer: Deon Irish