Conductor Bernhard Gueller Winter Symphony Season CPO
Conductor Bernhard Gueller

SYMPHONY CONCERT. Thursday, 4 August, 2018. City Hall Cape Town. CPO conducted by Bernhard Gueller, soloists Goitsemang Lehobye, Bongiwe Nakani; Boonzaaier Ode to Madiba (Premiere); Mahler: Symphony No 2 in C minor, Resurrection.

DEON IRISH reviews

Planning appears to have moved little faster in the Cape of the late 19th century than it does today. Although the construction of the City Hall was approved by the Town Council in 1893, construction only began in 1900, at the height of the Anglo-Boer War. This was doubtless, in part, to the many building and decorative features that needed design, manufacture or construction, and in some cases importation, to be eventually incorporated into the handsome conception of architects Reid and Green.

Goitsemang Lehobye
Goitsemang Lehobye

Sonic vision

The building was inaugurated (despite being not yet entirely complete) on 25 July 1905 by the then Mayor, Councillor Liberman, a fine portrait of whom adorns the concert hall foyer. This concert marked a thorough restoration of the interior of the concert hall and its surrounds, the first major restoration of the interior in some 70 years.

On the 25 July, 1905, Gustav Mahler was enjoying a summer vacation at the beautiful residence he had built at Maiernigg on the banks of Lake Wörth, in Austrian Carinthia, its serried central facade balconies almost a plastered imitation in domestic scale of those of the City Hall. It had been an exhausting conducting season that had finally ended with a performance of Strauss’ Feuersnot some six weeks earlier.

And so, that July, the 45 year old Mahler was happily ensconced in his composer’s cabin, up on the forested hillside behind the house, busy with his 7th Symphony which he completed on 15 August with the somewhat self-laudatory postscript: “Septima mea finita est.”

The commonality between these two quite disparate happenings is to be found in the instrument that is a concert hall. Just as organists often joke that the best stop on any organ is the acoustic in which it is housed, so too is the essential instrument for the accurate realization of the sonic vision of the late Romantic composers one of those shoe-box fin de siècle concert halls (or a subsequent variant), the proportions and textures perfectly creating the rich but not reverberant acoustic required to carry the musical conception; the scale (and often ornate grandeur) of the architecture mirroring that of works conceived at the apogee of the Symphonic Age.

We are extraordinarily lucky to have a gem of the type in Cape Town, the chance synchronicity of many disparate threads combining to entrust to us at the tip of Africa the preservation of so heritage a venue. And preserved not as museum, but as a living instrument as irreplaceable as any Stradivarius. The City Council deserve unreserved congratulations for having found the funds for this project in a budget that is always subject to a myriad pressing social needs.

That is why a Mahler symphony was an ideal choice for the CPO’s first concert back in the hall after some six months of restoration. And, although a performance of the composer’s 7th Symphony would have afforded pleasing synchronicity, the massive orchestral and choral impact of the aptly-named Resurrection Symphony was the obvious and unforgettable choice for the occasion. Coupling it with an overly-derivative new work was perhaps less apt.

This symphony largely belongs to Mahler’s period as conductor of the Hamburg Stadttheater, where he spent six extraordinarily busy years, conducting as many as nineteen operas a month. However, it was also in this period that he completed the song cycle, Des Knaben Wunderhorn and this great symphony, scored for the enormous forces of fifteen winds, 10 horns, 13 brass, two harps, two sets of timpani, a platoon of percussion, full strings and organ, with soprano and alto soloists and a large mixed chorus.

Bongiwe Nakani mezzo
Bongiwe Nakani

Simply tremendous

The work is a relatively early one: but, for all that, is quintessential Mahler. (The composer once, and only half-jokingly, remarked that, whilst Beethoven could start off as a sort of modified Haydn or Mozart, he was unlucky enough to be Gustav Mahler from the word go.)

So, the compositional elements abound with Mahler’s signature effects: the juxtaposition of the deeply tragic and the riotously bizarre; the morbid instrumentation and striking tonal progressions; the expressionist colouration and overt emotionalism; the fluctuating and uncertain tempi and tonalities. But there is formal structure, too: in this symphony, particularly in the slightly earlier composed first movement, a varied but recognizable sonata form.

Gueller proved an ideal conductor to handle a work of this scale and emotional import. In the social context he might come across as a somewhat diffident personality: charming, erudite and polite, but – to employ their respective New York experiences as comparison – rather more Mahler than Toscanini. But, on the podium with a score of this depth before him, any such diffidence is lost in a whole-hearted embrace of the musical argument, with all of its attendant emotional baggage.

It is interesting that a protégée of Celibidache – who performed little and recorded even less Mahler – should be so attuned to this composer. It is perhaps precisely in the emotion versus form co-ordinates that the difference emerges: Celibidache’s relative disregard for Mahler was reportedly based on a view of his formal deficiencies as a composer. Gueller, on the other hand, seems to embrace the emotional truths of the music with a self-asserting endorsement.

The performance was characteristic of mainstream Mahler interpretation – thankfully, I might add. Given the relatively little rehearsal time, the many extra players in the orchestra and the effectively ad hoc status of the chorus (the Symphony choir with the Gentlemen’s Ensemble, Vox and other volunteers), what was achieved was remarkable. But shortness of rehearsal time inevitably takes its toll both in what can be safely attempted and in how fluent-sounding is the result.

The single biggest difficulty to be overcome is the need for the elastic tempi which Mahler conceived and which – even under his own baton – caused players and audiences alike considerable difficulty. Gueller managed to do much in this regard, but there were episodes during which one sensed that – given more time to get the players “feeling” the music with him – those sighing phrases and languid responses might have been even more affected. This notwithstanding, the hauntingly winsome Andante was quite simply lovely.

The performance featured fine orchestral playing throughout and episodes of true splendour. In particular, the flutes had an absolutely wonderful evening, delivering the idiomatic writing with assured fluency; the pair of timpanists were splendidly cohesive and the principal trumpet solos memorable. Pride of instrumental place probably goes to the horns – twelve (there were two additional players) hornists, bells raised up, can certainly drown even the trumpets!

Of the soloists, I thought the writing more suited to Nakani’s alto with its warm vibrato. Of course, she has the lovely “Urlicht” movement; and her delivery of “Wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben” gave pointed sense to the glorious finale which followed.

This was simply tremendous. It’s a massive movement that manages to get even more impressive as it moves to its triumphant conclusion. Lehobye, sweet in the softer passages, would have served the score better at greater dynamics with a rather more Wagnerian presence (the composer was, after all, an admirer) and the chorus – while impressive – did show an occasional chink in ensemble. And top B flats really are very high…

Against that, however, must be placed the sheer immensity of tone engendered by so great a musical force in a venue so perfectly suited to the conception. If one had concerns that the acoustic might have been deleteriously affected by the alterations to the hall, this performance was enough to allay such fears.

For more music in Cape Town:

What: Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra – CPO, conducted by Bernhard Gueller
Boonzaaier Ode to Madiba Premiere; Mahler Symphony No 2 in C minor, Resurrection
Soloists: Goitsemang Lehobye, Bongiwe Nakani
Where: City Hall Cape Town