SYMPHONY CONCERT review. Thursday 7 November, 2019. At the Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Conrad van Alphen, soloist Dmitry Shishkin; Dvorák: Carnival Overture, Op 92; Chopin: Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor, Op 11; Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra.

DEON IRISH reviews

This proved a most rewarding concert in every way. The programmed selection of works was pleasingly varied in character, import and relative accessibility; the artists first rate and the orchestra on pleasingly good form.

We burst into proceedings with the vibrant Dvorák Carnival Overture with the giddying, almost mantra-like repetitive but varied statements of the opening chattering theme setting a mood that I have always found almost more hysterical than celebratory.

In the succeeding rather lugubrious melodic episode, with its dotted rhythm counterfoil, string chording was not always quite precise on the dots, so to speak; but the rather Midsummer Night’s Dream references led to a lovely selection of wind solo contributions, in which the clarinet solo sang sweetly and the flute created a whimsical nocturnal reverie.

Not to last – we were quickly plunged back into the dizzying sequential writing that heads towards the final rapids, for all the world as if Dvorak was imitating his compatriot’s depiction of the Moldau swirling through the tumbling gorges on its long journey to the North Sea.

Well, after all (well, mostly all) that frenzy, it was a delight to move to the altogether different sonic world of the young Chopin and his revolutionary zeal. Chopin’s second attempt at a piano concerto (despite its numbering) is characterised by three movements of decidedly varied character: the first, a bold allegro quite suited to the revolutionary fervour of 1830; then a haunting Nocturne, of the type the composer was to develop into a considerable art form; and finally an exhilarating if winsome Rondo, affording a soloist plenty of opportunity of demonstrating digital dexterity.

Pianist Dmitry Shishkin
Pianist Dmitry Shishkin

The quite wonderful Dmitry Shishkin

Although the 20 year-old Chopin had already attained his quite distinctive compositional style the work remains a youthful and somewhat novice essay; and a youthful soloist on the piano is no bad thing.

In this case, it was the quite wonderful Dmitry Shishkin who – rather like our previous week’s soloist – is a laureate of numerous competitions, including the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. As I have had remarked before, however, whether Chopin’s distinctive rubato had already developed at the time of composition of this work – or was even intended to be so employed in a concerted piece – to quite the extent employed by Shishkin is a matter of debate.

He was lucky in having the always nimble van Alphen in accompaniment, securing a ready ensemble which in other hands might have been sorely absent.

This reservation apart, I thought the performance quite splendid. Shishkin approached the opening allegro with suitable energy; that is, when he finally got to make his declamatory entry after the extended symphonic exposition of the musical material by the orchestra.

No shortage of technical skills

Shishkin, as is to be expected from international competition winners, has no shortage of technical skills and made light of the movement’s not inconsiderable difficulties. I much enjoyed the rhapsodic feel of the piano part against a more reserved orchestral accompaniment. And, after  their fall from grace in the overture, strings made up for it with some truly lovely playing – especially the passage leading to the reprise, in which a lovely creamy serenity was achieved.

It was in the succeeding Romanza that the soloist was able to really display an alluring sensitivity, with the dreamy quality of the piano writing being nurtured with telling effect, Shishkin creating a line of rapturous melody over the languid string accompaniment. Hats off to bassoonist Ball for an evocative contribution.

The final Cracovienne had all the bouncing energy of its folk-dance derived inspiration and the relatively straightforward structural elements were neatly and clearly delineated. The reading was marked by spot-on co-ordination between soloist and conductor and received an enthusiastic and entirely deserved ovation.

The evening concluded with Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra”, a title designed to emphasize its giving to orchestral sections themselves a quasi-soloist prominence.

As a composer, Bartók had found great difficulty in attaining acceptance, particularly in his own country, which was increasingly beset by political troubles, when the brief post-Great War left-wing government of Bela Kun was replaced by the reactionary regime of Admiral Horthy. But his reputation was growing in the wider musical world and his success as a pianist and as a composer, coupled with his distress at the growing rapprochement between the Horthy government and Nazi Germany, impelled him to emigrate to the United States in 1940.

In his last years in exile, after briefly holding teaching posts at both Columbia and Harvard universities, Bartók endured the increasing ill-health caused by leukaemia, he died in relative poverty in 1945, leaving an incomplete viola concerto and a third piano concerto more nearly finalized.

The Concerto for Orchestra is among his last works, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in 1943 and receiving its first performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky in December 1944, in the presence of the composer. It’s an important work, but not, perhaps, the major work of the composer’s later years – that honour is generally afforded the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta of 1936 – a symphony in all but name.

Bartók himself wrote of the gradual transition of the work from the severity of the first movement to the apical third, with its great lament, and the onward progress to the finale and a reassertion of the forces of Life. I thought can Alphen captured this great architectural arch well, from the undoubtedly eerie opening to the delicate transparencies of the quixotic allegro scherzando, with its dancing wind fragments and pizzicato strings. The Elegia was real Bartók “night music”, a meditation on that long Night that all must inevitably face, it’s almost folk-song character giving some ordinariness to the concept. The intermezzo was lovely, van Alphen capturing precisely the sardonic quality of the almost mocking quotation from Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony.

Finally the moto perpetuo workout for the strings in the exhilarating finale, the composer’s formal skills being casually displayed with some effective fugal writing.

It’s a big work and a hard ask; and Van Alphen and his players can take considerable satisfaction in their undoubted success.

What: CPO conducted by Conrad van Alphen, pianist Dmitry Shishkin
Cape Town City Hall: Reviewer Deon Irish