Cellist Graham du Plessis CPO

SYMPHONY CONCERT REVIEW. Thursday, 9 November 2023. At The Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Jeremy Silver, soloist Graham du Plessis; Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune; Lalo: Cello Concerto in D minor; Debussy: La Mer.

Whilst we have had several performances of Debussy’s evocative tone poem depicting the afternoon reverie of a faun, the same composer’s great symphonic depiction of the sea in its varying moods has received somewhat less frequent performance at the City Hall.

In fact, the last time I reviewed a performance of this work at this venue was in October 1999, when the orchestra – conducted by David Tidboald – played it in a programme that also featured the cello as the solo instrument: on that occasion, Haydn’s C major concerto and Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations”, both played in memorable fashion by the celebrated Dutch cellist, Pieter Wispelwey.

Of course, I might well have missed a performance in the interim; but it is nevertheless true to say that the orchestra performs relatively little French repertoire. There are a string of works which I remember hearing in the CTSO days, which no longer seem to grace programmes: almost everything by Berlioz (“Fantastique” gets an occasional look in);  the Saint-Saëns cello and piano concertos, and the delicious “Carnival of the Animals”; the Bizet symphony and L’Arlessiene Suite; Faure’s “Pelleas” suite; Ravel’s  G major and Left Hand piano concertos, and a whole slew of supremely orchestrated orchestral showpieces…. The list goes on.

The relative lack of exposure to this taxing and frequently idiosyncratic literature showed in the two outer works of this programme, the somewhat more foursquare writing of the Lalo providing less of a challenge in this regard.

As any soloist, player or conductor can testify, keeping ensemble together in a rhythmically steady piece is a matter of adhering to a regular pulse. It requires self-control, but little else. When a composer or interpreter introduces variations of tempo or pulse, whether the momentary slowing or quickening of a phrase, or the broadening out at the end of a section; or the altering of tempo between one episode and another, then best results are achieved when soloists and players do not merely follow a conductor’s beat but feel the desired musical shaping with him. It is at that point that the musical flow becomes, flexible, pliable, elastic ….

The early French Romantic school already displays these tendencies with the full realization occurring in the atmospheric, suggestive milieu of French Impressionism. Both Debussy works on this programme are prime examples of that school.

The Debussy prelude has one of the most immediately recognizable openings in all orchestral music: I remember the extraordinary impact it had at the first live performance I heard of the work conducted by Louis Frémaux. The opening is a languidly sinuous flute solo: a repetitive chromatic scale with an insistent tritone that rises and falls like the gentle breathing of the dozing creature depicted in the suite. On that occasion, Lucien Grujon, the CTSO’s principal flute, received just a nod from Frémaux, raised his instrument to his lips, and – seemingly effortlessly – decanted into the acoustic the silvery E major beauty that invests Debussy’s creation.

As noted in the concert programme, the work was subsequently turned into a ballet by Diaghilev (not Nijinsky); but this was not with Debussy’s approval, since (to quote Grove’s) “the fluid construction of the music was belied by the architectural poses of the dances and the subtle suggestion of sexuality were made all too explicit.” One does wonder what Debussy would have thought of many modern dance realizations of this score.

Jeremy Silver and Opera UCT: Interview
Jeremy Silver

Flutes were exemplary

Jeremy Silver, who is now resident in Cape Town, managed to capture a good deal of the languor inherent in the writing – the impression of heat, of drowsiness, of just a hint of breeze in the occasional swirl and a pleasing hum of insects in the adjoining meadow. The pre-eminent flutes were exemplary throughout, and the strings achieved a suitably hazy indistinction. The major criticism was that horn solos were just too prominent and never captured the somnolent, not quite consciously aware effect of the writing.

Lalo’s Cello Concerto in D minor is a relative rarity in concert programmes and was, as such, a welcome novelty to the programming. Born in Lille, he was the scion of a Spanish family who settled in the then Spanish Netherlands in the 17th century. They had a tradition of careers in the military and Lalo (rather like Rimsky-Korsakov) was compelled to follow suit, until his musical compulsion caused him to rebel and leave home, becoming a professional violist and, in due course, a member of the renowned Armingaud Quartet.

As a composer he remained unknown until the sensational premiere of his Symphonie Espagnole (actually his second violin concerto) by Pablo Sarasate in 1875. It remains by far his best-known work. The composer was well served on this occasion by the amiable Graham du Plessis, lecturer and colleague of the conductor at UCT’s SA College of Music.

The writing in this piece is not distinguished, whether in melodic invention or in the structure of its orchestral and solo interplay. The overly sequential writing palls after frequent repetitions; the relatively infrequent integration of solo and orchestral elements makes the whole vehicle rather episodic.

Assured account

Silver and du Plessis did with the material what they could: the latter provided an assured – at times even passionate – account of the solo line, achieving some lovely tonal projection on his modern cello by a British luthier. In accompaniment, Silver was in general sympathetic, and balances were impeccable.

The second movement – an andante that morphs into a presto – is a curious musical confection, and one that would be difficult to bring off, even were the material to be of a more convincing nature. The andante section is fair enough (although marred by a few momentary lapses of intonation); but the writing of the quasi “scherzo” second section is really too vapid to make of the whole a satisfactory movement. The orchestra scrambled along in dutiful fashion and Silver did what he could to maintain cohesion, given the scant material to hand. At the very least, they did all keep together.

The final – although also something of a curiosity – does hang together rather better. It also, curiously, opens with an almost elegiac andante; but then skittles off in an attractive enough Rondo – well, one that would have been attractive had it not been for some rather haphazard brays from the horn section, who were not having a good night of it. There was a significant but thankfully momentary memory lapse from the soloist on one of the rondo returns before we were into the final episodes of the movement with some nicely declamatory playing from du Plessis, although the accompaniment never did feel quite assured.

After interval, the great treat of Debussy’s superb symphonic sketches for orchestra. “La Mer”, depicting aspects of the sea in movements entitled “Dawn to midday on the sea”; “Play of the waves” and “Dialogue of the wind and the sea”. It’s an extraordinary depiction of the intangible elements depicted in the three titles.

Silver did very well with this complex score, having clearly worked the orchestra into something approaching the common understanding I spoke of at the top of this review. Nevertheless, there were still orchestral elements that never quite achieved an organic unity of feeling with the remainder and don’t have an innate feel for the style. So, some of the fragmented, musical wisps that characterize the sun glinting off the water in the opening movement, or wisps of spray whisked off the swell crests in the last, never quite achieved the almost spontaneous, momentary evocation of those elements as demanded by the very term, Impressionist.

The players must themselves take responsibility for execution: so, the wind octet in the opening measures never seemed quite settled in a common tuning; and much of the horn writing seemed to be in brass, rather than wind mode. Trumpets also made rather heavy weather of the final cadence of the opening movement.

By way of contrast, the celebrated cor anglais solo was lovely; the timpani contribution throughout lithe and subtle; percussion good; and the strings winningly flexible – indeed, this was the section that best achieved a real French-sounding fluency in execution, especially in the central movement, with the serene added effects of harp and flute notes.

A little more French repertoire is indicated and I would personally welcome a wholesale exploration of the Ravel oeuvre.

What: CPO conducted by Jeremy Silver, soloist Graham du Plessis review
Reviewer: Deon Irish