SYMPHONY CONCERT REVIEW. Thursday, 14 September 2023. At The Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Bernhard Gueller, soloist Jayson Gillham; Sibelius: The Swan of Tuonela; Mozart: Piano Concerto No 21 in C, K.467; Mendelssohn: Notturno, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; Symphony No 4 in A, Op 90 (“Italian”). DEON IRISH reviews.

What an enjoyable affair this concerted collection of orchestral masterworks proved to be!

We ranged across an entire spectrum of orchestral moods and textures, commencing with the unutterably dark and gloomy depiction of the Finnish legendary land of death, Tuonela, and concluding with as joyful and sun-drenched an Italian celebration as any tourist could wish for. We also explored a different spectrum, ranging from the rich sonorities of the full Romantic orchestral tutti to the ineffable delicacy of Mozart’s Classical minimalism, in the hauntingly lovely Andante of the C major piano concerto.

There is food for thought in the circumstance that so many cultures (and their religions) have a river as a symbol of, or metaphor for death. In our own cultural tradition, we are most familiar with the River Styx of Hades (although there were four others, too) in Greek mythology; also with the symbolic River Jordan of the Judeo-Christian tradition; but there are also the Vaitaran of Hindu mythology and the Mictlan of the Aztecs. And the Finnish Tuonela belongs to this same category – a black river, surrounding the eponymous Island of the Dead, on which floats a majestic swan, singing an endless lament.

Jayson Gillham with the CPO - at last!Tone poem

Sibelius’ tone poem depicting this legendary creature is the second in a suite depicting episodes in an epic poem named for its hero, Lemminkäinen, who is tasked with killing the swan but who is himself killed in the attempt. It is justly famous for its celebrated cor anglais solo, delivered in gracefully shaped sentences in this performance by sub-principal oboist Carin Bam. Orchestral playing achieved a suitable sheen to the silky string writing in Gueller’s admirably gentle reading.

There followed one of the string of quite irreplaceable piano concertos by Mozart, played in beguiling fashion by the Australian-born soloist, Jayson Gillham. Gillham sprang to international recognition as the prize-winner of the 2014 Montreal International Piano Competition and now has a flourishing international career, based out of London.

The C major concerto is one of two dating from ear1y 1785, written for performance during the usual Lenten concert season. His father, Leopold, who was visiting from Salzburg at the time, was quite likely present for the premiere of this work. Mozart’s catalogue lists the date of completion as 9 March – which, in 1785, was the Wednesday before Passion Sunday – and the first performance took place at Mozart’s own “akademie” at the Burgtheater the following day.

This concerto – together with its companion in D minor of just a month earlier – are amongst the handful of Mozart’s very best conceptions in the genre. They differ from the three delightful examples of the previous year in adopting an entirely more symphonic approach to the writing, with the orchestration (particularly in the outer movements) bursting free of any merely accompanimental function into an equal musical partnership.

And so it was on this occasion, with the orchestral ritornello featuring some quite delicious wind interpolations against neat strings (well done to oboe, bassoon and flute for their threefold variant leading to the piano entry).

Gillham’s handling of the intriguing opening sequential piano established two seminal considerations immediately: first, that he is an ideal Mozartean, with a magically delicate touch that translates into sheer translucent loveliness; and, second, that this hall is about as ideal an acoustic for Mozart as I can think of.

Jayson Gillham with the CPO - at last!Intensely absorbing

Both of these conclusions were repeatedly underscored in a solo performance that never slipped from the wholly lovely, the intensely absorbing, the deeply rewarding. Gillham has the full armoury: scales as finely graded as the finest pearl necklaces; phrasing that is instinctively arioso; a staccato creating pointillist images; all were on full display, particularly in the Radu Lupu cadenzas employed in both outer movements. Gueller provided a quite delicious orchestral confection to partner this, with some really fine ensemblic cohesion and precise wind chording – although horns did have an indifferent moment or two.

The central – and celebrated – Andante was as serene an idyll as it was undoubtedly intended to be. The long solo lines, against super-legato string chords, softly pulsing winds and evocative horn calls, could not be more distinct from the intensely rhythmic, frequently staccato, accented shapes of the outer movements. Truly a case of the medium being the message.

The finale was a delightful romp, the first piano entry delicious in its delicate exuberance, orchestral strings providing a taut collective counterpoint. The movement delighted, not least the exceedingly clever cadenza, which provided a final bon-bon before the resolutive scales led to an emphatic final cadence and an entirely deserved ovation, which demonstrated quite another side of the hall’s acoustic.

After interval we had Mendelssohn’s quite beautiful Nocturne, from his instrumental music for Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, written for the Prussian Court Theatre. It really does depend on the marvellous horn writing to achieve its effect but, since horns (after their triumphs of the week before) were not having a good night of it, we shall leave well alone and move onto the symphony.

I don’t quite know why Mendelssohn is not universally more highly regarded than he is. Too nice?  Too privileged?  Too well-mannered? Too popular? It cannot be on account on any really musical consideration, since his achievements in almost every musical form (with the notable exception of opera) are of the first water.

Certainly, this symphony is a little miracle of orchestration, bubbling over with energy and life and capturing – absolutely perfectly, one feels – the sort of gaiety that characterises a holiday in Italy. (Well, perhaps not the most recent – it was just too hot!)

Gueller and the orchestra gave it their energetic all and a most enjoyable performance it was, too; although I did feel that the Andante (meant to portray one of the religious processions common in Italy for major feasts or parochial celebrations) was somewhat too quick for any statue or monstrance to be carried with reasonable safety ….

The final saltarellos (with their interspersed tarantella) were as lively as one could wish – indeed, winds and brass might have wished for something a little less lively; but lips held out and the endless exhilarating triplets sent us reeling out into the night, thoroughly gruntled.

What: CPO review
Reviewer: Deon Irish