SYMPHONY CONCERT REVIEW. Thursday, 9 June, 2022. At The Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Bernhard Gueller, soloists Suzanne Martens (violin) and Petrus Coetzee (viola); Mozart: Overture to Don Giovanni; Mozart: Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E flat, K.364; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op 64. DEON IRISH reviews.

It is a matter of personal regret that this concert could be accounted unusual in that it featured, as the central of three works, a little jewel of rare quality and lustre, even amongst the extraordinary collection of concerti penned by the peerless Mozart.

Mozart’s career can, with some justification, be divided into three parts: the first a youthful and adolescent phase centered on Salzburg, although including significant and lengthy journeys with his father to the capitals of Europe, presenting his son as a performing prodigy and earning considerable of sums of money and valuable gifts in the process; and the third centered on his considerable artistic success in the Habsburg capitals of Vienna and Prague, both as a composer and performer – suitably lucrative, but frittered away in the absence of anything approaching financial discipline.

In between came the disastrous tour to Paris, during which his mother died and from which he returned to Salzburg in January 1779 in bitter disappointment, both from the realization that he had failed to advance his career and from a notable rejection in an affair of the heart. The first months back in the increasingly hated provincial atmosphere of Salzburg accordingly saw him dutifully slogging away at his unglamourous job in the cathedral organ loft; but the creative urge was not to be denied and, even if somewhat irregularly, this central transitional period did produce some works of astonishing creativity and beauty.

First amongst them was the celebrated “Coronation” mass in C, K.317, written in March 1779 (probably for Easter). At the other end of the period lies the uniquely lovely opera “Idomeneo”, given its premier in Munich in 1781. The period in between is mostly populated with works of little consequence, amongst which is the Concerto for Two Pianos in E flat (K365), an amiable confection, written for the amusement of himself and his sister, Nannerl.

Violist Petrus Coetzee: Interview
Violist Petrus Coetzee

But there is another work in multiple soloist form, the altogether more extraordinary Konzertante Sinfonie für Geige und Bratsche Es-Dur (K.364), probably dating from 1780. Nothing is known about the provenance of this work; the combination of instruments suggests it might have been intended for his father, Leopold and himself, the solo instruments being indeed appropriate to their preferences.

The form itself – a relic of the Baroque era – was still popular in musical centres such as Mannheim and Paris (both of which had been visited on the recent tour) so we can imagine Mozart investigating this somewhat antique form with some interest. In fact, the opening theme of the allegro is note for note that of a symphony by the Mannheim-based Carl Stamitz. But there is nothing formulaic or antique about the rich invention and emotional integrity of this great essay in concertante orchestral writing – in which the symphonic construction and rich orchestration is enhanced and embellished by the commentary and dialogue of the soloists.

We are fortunate to have, in our musical midst, soloists of the calibre of Suzanne Martens and Petrus Coetzee, for a work as demanding as this does not yield its beauty to those of lesser technique and musical insight. And, if the work was intended by Mozart for his father (who was his teacher) and himself, then there was a happy correspondence in the circumstance that Ms Martens was a teacher of Mr Coetzee.

The opening allegro was all mannered elegance. Gueller caught the arresting architecture of the opening perfectly: the richly dark, viola-toned opening chords (not merely divisi violas, but violins joining them down in the tenor range) immediately contrasted with a delicate staccato descending arpeggio. The score requires the viola soloist to tune the viola a semitone higher, so that his part is notated in D rather than E flat: the resulting slight elevation of intensity resulting from the tauter strings assists the viola’s projection against its brethren in the orchestra.

Violinist Suzanne Martens
Violinist Suzanne Martens

I am not sure that such a device was employed by Coetzee, whose tone can be every bit as compelling as a violin’s, even if of differing quality and who ensured that the interplay between him and Martens in the simply gorgeous dialogues of this movement were that of fully equally protagonists. Of course, this is exactly the writing in which the City Hall acoustic assumes unmatched status. Its enhancement of both the dynamic and the carrying presence of the solo lines ensured that even their whispered asides were a shared conversation.

The movement continued with its simply inexhaustible melodic invention, as fine an account by the soloists as one could have wished, with absolutely exemplary ensemble and neatly precise accompaniment. There is an important figure for two horns, just before the recapitulation which, although nothing more, really, than a hunting horn configuration perfectly manageable on a natural horn, received something of a flaying; but, for the rest, orchestral playing was splendid.

The cadenza was a highpoint, displaying splendid imitation and doppelgänger precision in its final bars of quasi-fantasia construction and demanding matched ornamentation.

The C minor central Andante is a very substantial movement, indeed. The thematic material is particularly well-suited to the viola’s tenor register, providing a richly mellow thematic grounding against which the sweeter voiced violin can comment with filigree lightness. The architecture of this movement is intriguing, with a sense of structural independence at times in the E flat central section orchestral writing.

Then we were into the rather nursery music writing of the presto with its allusions to material contained in the opening allegro – particularly in the horn and oboe writing. I am pleased to report that the horns fared rather better in the finale! I liked the interplay between the soloists and the enhanced ornamentation of the succeeding reappearances of the rondo them – a sort of economy of scale.

The performance romped its way to a very ebullient ending and a rapturous reception from the pleasingly large (though still restricted) audience.

What: CPO review – soloists Suzanne Martens (violin) and Petrus Coetzee (viola)
Reviewer: Deon Irish
WS