SYMPHONY CONCERT REVIEW. Thursday, 2 June, 2022. At The Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Bernhard Gueller, soloist Leo Gevisser; Schubert: Entr’acte to Rosamunde; Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No 4 in G minor; Dvorak: Symphony No 6 in D major, Op 60. DEON IRISH reviews.

In 1823, Schubert wrote an entire suite of incidental music for a play, Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus, in a scant five days. Despite the music being enthusiastically received, the play itself was a disaster and survived but two performances.

Fortunately, the music was rediscovered by George Grove and Arthur Sullivan in 1867 and both the lovely Overture and this Entr’acte have consequently become well known. Perhaps particularly by being included in the Reader’s Digest Festival of Light Classical Music, a box set of 12 vinyl long-playing records that appeared in 1960 and served to nurture an entire new generation of orchestral music lovers.

The second disc contained Humperdinck’s overture to Hansel and Gretel; this B flat entr’acte of Schubert; the Sarasate Zigeunerweisen; Liszt’s 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody; the Nocturne from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Nights Dream music and Lehar’s Gold and Silver Waltz. All eminently listenable and certainly one of the discs that provided a recurring soundtrack to my early teenage years.

Pianist Leo Gevisser interview
Pianist Leo Gevisser

A neat aperitif

I much enjoyed this gentle performance, despite some fellow concert-goers questioning the work’s suitability as the opening item for a concert. I thought it a neat aperitif to the more substantial vintages that followed: possessed of a light delicacy, full of charm and – in the two minore sections – winsome variety. Strings played well (apart from a player who repeatedly rushed the first quaver of the third bar of the maggiore, turning it into a quasi-appoggiatura) and the oboe solos were lovely. A minor cavil: I wasn’t convinced by the rather exaggerated firmata following the tied minims.

There followed Rachmaninov’s fourth concerto for the piano; the least popular (and perhaps most elusive) of his established compositions in the genre. (Indeed, it doesn’t even get a mention in Kloiber’s two-volume “Handbook of Instrumental Concertos”.) He revised it extensively after the disappointingly limited impact of its 1927 Philadelphia premiere (with Stokowski conducting) and it is now usually heard in the 1941 version.

Rachmaninov had been able to spend far less time in composition following his emigration to the United States after the Russian Revolution, having perforce to earn a living through a very busy schedule as concert pianist. This concerto (which antedates the 1934 Rhapsody) has a distinctly different character from the overtly Romantic disposition of the 2nd and 3rd concertos and of the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”, being given over to a generally abstract musical construction and an overt emotional expressionism. The work is more complex than its older brethren and the piano writing, although unrelentingly taxing, has a far less dominant musical role and in, in consequence, almost disappointing in solo impact.

Leo Gevisser, who grew up in Cape Town before moving to Cleveland at the age of fourteen, has impeccable pianistic credentials, having studied with some notable teachers and already won a string of competitions. This appearance cemented that reputation in a performance that was characterized by a unfussy and refreshingly unmannered approach to the task at hand, which was the delivery of a myriad notes both accurately and musically, together with the maintaining of cohesion between the frequently at odds rhythmic impulses of solo and orchestral lines.

A climactic conclusion

There were several episodes in the work in which one felt that the rather slight pianist could have engendered a deal more tone from the Steinway: the orchestration is, at times, overly generous and rather unforgiving and did render the piano effectively inaudible. Against this must be set, however, the soloist’s lovely sense of line and very subtle alterations of tempo and of pulse. And the finale did indeed engender a certain heady exhilaration and ultimately attain something approaching a climactic conclusion.

It is the second movement of this work that has always presented something of a difficulty: and, although commentators such as David Ewen refer to the principal melody as being “full of Russian pathos”, whilst others allude to “Three blind mice”, all I can hear is Charles Coborn’s “Two lovely black eyes”. It was originally written in 1886, but was reissued in a 1924 recording, just two years before this concerto was written. Could the composer have subconsciously (or even deliberately?) adopted this theme from that source?

Either way, for a movement of such scale, the material seems rather slight to support so bulky an architecture.

The concert concluded with the relatively rarely heard Dvorák 6th Symphony, which – as I have remarked before – is one of those works that lurk on the edge of one’s musical memory and come shyly back into recognition as soon as heard again. This is particularly true of the wonderful third movement scherzo: a furiant, displaying all the impulsive energy and uneven two in three accents of this Bohemian dance form.

It was a generally satisfying reading although there were episodes in which the brass choir seemed unduly prominent. By way of contrast, there were several lovely horn solos, particularly at the conclusion of the second movement.

What was particularly pleasing was the lovely and confident contribution of the string basses – a section containing several new young players, who appear to be finding their orchestral feet in very satisfying fashion.

What: Pianist Leo Gevisser CPO review
When: 2 June 2022
Reviewer: Deon Irish South Africa