SYMPHONY CONCERT REVIEW. Thursday, 4 May 2023. At the Cape Town City Hall.
CPO Conducted by Bernhard Gueller, soloist Veriko Tchumburidze; Respighi: Ancienat Airs and Dances; Dvorák: Violin Concerto in A Minor Op.53; Brahms: Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90. ALBERT COMBRINK reviews.

Going to the City Hall for a Symphony Season concert with the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra has a festive quality. Big-budget events like orchestra concerts, operas and music competitions seem to have had to build into their daily job-description a desperate struggle to survive.

COVID proved to be the end of many an artistic project, but through sheer grit and determination, our orchestra has survived. To see growing numbers of diversifying audiences arrive, to hear our flagship orchestra play some of the greatest works in the history of music, therefore takes on a special significance. Regulars come to hear their favourites, and new audiences come to fall in love with these great works, and thus the circle of sustainability is maintained.

CPO soloist Veriko Tchumburidze Picture Joan Ward
CPO soloist Veriko Tchumburidze Picture Joan Ward

Ancient Airs and Dances

The concert opened with the third Suite of Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, a set of songs and Lute solos from the Baroque and Renaissance eras, arranged for String Orchestra by the late 19th century composer. ‘Early Music’ specialists and the authentic ‘Historically Informed Performance Practice’ purists were not yet a thing when composers such as Mendelssohn rediscovered the forgotten J.S. Bach manuscripts hidden away in boxes, and chose to save and perform them.

Respighi did the same for Monteverdi, Viotti, Vitali and more. But the fact is, that here, one is not listening to ‘Early Music’, or even a reproduction of it: one is listening to the greatest orchestrator of the Romantic era giving these humble little lute songs the full multi-coloured, velvet treatment, and turning them into lush symphonic works.

And a full velvet treatment is what the orchestra gave it – for the most part. Traditionally, the pieces are played much slower than the original plucked lute might have been. However, conductor Bernhardt Gueller immediately launched into a rather fleet-footed “Italiana”. The acoustics and the tempo made it hard for me to hear the Lute plucking imitation of the pizzicato cellos and double basses. Romantic as it was, the conductor cannot be accused of indulging the broad tempo these pieces can invite.

CPO soloist Veriko Tchumburidze Pictures Joan Ward

Exhilarating virtuosic feast

Balance between soloist and orchestra is always a complicated parameter to negotiate, especially when pitting one lone solo-violin against a full orchestra. One of the accusations against the Dvorák Violin Concerto, made by no less a player than its original dedicatee Joseph Joachim, is that the orchestration is too loud.

So, when the orchestra let rip with the dramatic opening, and the violinist seemed in danger of being swallowed up in the sound, there was a moment of trepidation. But once the second theme landed, everything had settled, and the violinist took center stage for an exhilarating and virtuosic feast.

Veriko Tchumburidze, winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition for young musicians and the International Wieniawski Violin Competition, made as convincing a case for this concerto as you are likely to hear.

After the rather serious declarative opening dialogue with the full bursts of the orchestra, she soon stepped forward as leader of her own pageant, and guided the audience on a delightful tour through all the delights this work has in store: rich sonorities on the lower G string, bouncy notes flying off the high register like sparks – a masterclass in the delicious Italian terms that describe these technical feats: “staccato” “spiccato”, and the like – and a mischievous delight in the rhythm, which even had her dancing to herself at one point.

Her 1756 Guadagnini violin sang in celebration under such skilled hands. Truly a concerto performance to remember. All the more astounding that this level of collaboration happens in a mere handful of rehearsals.

After interval, we were treated to the Third Symphony by Johannes Brahms. Gueller and the CPO seem to specialise in works of this era, and Brahms in particular, so there was an immediate sense of confidence and authority in the bold chords that open what is, for some, Brahms’ greatest Symphony.

CPO Veriko Tchumburidze Picture Joan Ward

Final chapter yet to be told

The desire to not over-indulge languid tempi made for a brisk row down the Rhine and there was definitely no time for boredom. The horn solo in the third movement was superb, and highlighted that one could not hear the ornament in the melody in the other instruments: acoustics or the fast tempo? Who could tell for sure?

In this glorious work, a self-contented uttering, brushed as it is with some hidden darker drama, all the movements end softly, making it unusual for its genre and age. Giving it space without sounding slow, and moving the dramatic sections without sounding driven, makes this a huge challenge for a conductor.

Brahms resisted attempts at reading programmatic meaning into his works, but one is tempted to hear memories of his years of frustrated love with Clara Schumann, the reverence and love for her husband and his mentor and friend Robert Schumann and his attempts to build his identity as a man finally resigned to remaining unpartnered in his old age. At the end of this performance, there was, however, the sense that the final chapter of the story had yet to be told. I lay that at the door of the composer, not the conductor.

What: Symphony concert review soloist Veriko Tchumburidze
Reviewer: Albert Combrink is a pianist, educator, vocal coach, piano teacher, presenter