CPO SYMPHONY CONCERT review. Thursday 21 November 2019. At Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Bernard Gueller, soloist Luke Bond; Prokofiev: Symphony No 1 in D, Op 25, “Classical”; Poulenc: Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings in G minor, FP 93; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op 64.

Organist Luke Bond
Organist Luke Bond

DEON IRISH reviews

The pretty much full house for this alluring Franco-Russian programme was treated to invigorating performances of all three works on offer, in the case of the concerto despite the considerable performance hurdles placed in the musical path of the evening’s organist, who is also a personal friend, Luke Bond, of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.

I have always nurtured a very soft spot for Prokofiev’s ebullient Classical Symphony, a work which many listeners, quite incorrectly, assume to be a student work, inspired by the formal study of the great compositional writing of previous musical eras. In fact, Prokofiev had graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatory almost eight years before he penned this first symphony and already had an impressive body of works to his name, including the first two of his piano concertos, the Scythian Suite and the first violin concerto.

But the great composers of the Classical period had indeed been a seminal influence on the young Prokofiev, although from long before his conservatoire years. He identified the musical influences that he responded to in these terms: “The first is classical, its origin lying in my early childhood when I heard my mother play the sonatas of Beethoven. It assumes a neo-classical aspect in the sonatas and concertos, or imitates the classical style of the eighteenth century, as in the gavottes, the Classical Symphony, and to a certain extent the Sinfonietta…” (as quoted by David Ewen).

This work, which was an immediate success at its premiere in St Petersburg in April 1918, retains the affection of the listening public and maintains a regular presence in concert halls and broadcasts the musical world over.

How Haydn would have enjoyed this vibrant performance of a work so infused with his own witty spirit! Gueller and his players achieved remarkably good ensemble in the exposed writing (on minimal rehearsal time, given the loss of one day), the more noteworthy given Gueller’s chosen tempi which, at times, almost reached the alarming. I much enjoyed the opening movement’s quirky second subject, with its ornamented plunging 24ths, the first violins following Bacharova’s assured lead with the lightest of touches.

A winsome interlude

The succeeding Larghetto was a winsome interlude, the composer’s seemingly innate sardonic mien being temporarily cast aside. The following Gavotte was given a mordantly intriguing air in the careful delineation of its polytonal harmonic elements, coupled with a suitably amusing realization of the almost satirically pompous orchestration. Then came the finale which was, quite possibly, a few degrees faster than even the indicated vivace. It is as exhilarating as anything the composer ever created and flew by in a helter-skelter of D major jauntiness. The audience loved it.

There followed the second of the concertos commissioned from Poulenc by Princesse Edmond de Polignac who was, rather in the manner of the Countess of Grantham, the American-born heiress of the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. Her quite extraordinary first name, Winnaretta, might explain why – even as a lesbian in a lavender marriage – she did not rebel against being generally known by her consort’s name.

Poulenc, who was himself born into a wealthy pharmaceutical family in Paris on 7 January, 1899, received only a somewhat eclectic musical education that left him feeling musically inadequate at an age when most young composers are already exploring their creativity with the boldness born of apparent knowledge. It was perhaps for this reason that he was attracted to and became in effect a numerically inappropriate seventh member of “Les Six“, the group of avant garde young composers that gathered around Erik Satie.

These young artists derided the overt Romanticism of César Franck and his followers, but were equally dismissive of the impressionistic style of Debussy and Ravel (from whom Poulenc had unsuccessfully sought lessons), instead setting out on a path not dissimilar to that of Prokofiev in advocating a rediscovery of classical clarity and structural form.

This concerto was written in 1938 and first performed a year later. It is arguably amongst his most important and original works and displays that duality of temperament which gave the composer his Janus reputation: a dense intellectual scheme coupled with intense emotional expressionism taking the listener on a picaresque from the ecclesiastical solemnity of Bach to the deliciously vulgar gaiety of a fairground organ.

Structurally, the concerto is somewhat unusual, its single movement being divided into seven sections in quasi-Baroque fantasia fashion. Poulenc undoubtedly envisaged the organ creating differing colourations for these unfolding episodes; something always both a delight and a challenge to an organist.

Different tonal types and pitches

The organ, being essentially a mechanism designed to allow a single player to blow a great many different pipes, of different tonal types and pitches and in single or multiple combinations, differs radically from instrument to instrument and from builder to builder. One may interject that – for example – individual pianos or violins also possess different tonal qualities, and that is incontrovertible. However, such instruments all possess but a single set of strings (perhaps even from the same supplier) and the different sound comes more from subtle differences in methods of construction and materials employed.

Organs, on the other hand, are designed to incorporate quite differing sounds and, on top of it, have a quasi-symbiotic relationship with the reigning acoustic – which is often described as the most important stop on any organ. So, determining what which ranks of pipes to use and in what particular combination becomes an intriguing challenge for an organist who is trying to create on any particular organ something as close as possible to what one envisages the composer had in mind.

The princess was herself a talented organist, and the commission was originally planned for her as the soloist, the orchestration being limited to a modest string orchestra that would fit into the Polignac’s private concert hall, complete with an 1892 Cavaillé-Coll organ. But Poulenc was no organist and sought the assistance of Maurice Duruflé to advise on issues of registration. And it was he who gave the premiere in December 1938 and to whom the work is dedicated.

The City Hall’s 1905 Norman & Beard is at best a foreign cousin of the instrument for which the work was conceived. The scale of the pipework is generally larger, with heavy duty diapasons, stentorian reeds and a massive pedal division all designed to accompany the grand Choral Societies of the Edwardian era for which use it was primarily intended. Even in fine fettle, the instrument would present challenges in registering this concerto.

However, it is in anything but fine fettle and it is an enormous tribute to the instrumental skills of Luke Bond that he managed to work his way around the odd note that was off, a Choir division that proved erratic in use, and an entire Solo organ that was not utilizable, and yet make the instrument sound entirely worthy of the piece and of the performance. It is not good enough, however; and something must be done to ensure that this irreplaceable heritage instrument is properly maintained for future generations.

A chance to bare teeth and flex muscles

The performance opened with a convincing Bachian flourish which gave the instrument immediate chance to bare teeth and flex muscles before engaging with the timpani in an extended foray. (I note here that percussionist Eugene Trofimczyk deserves an especial accolade for standing in at very short notice for timpanist Christoph Muller, who was sadly required to fly to Germany following a sudden death in his family.)

The opening episode continues with some serene string input before skipping into the next allegro giocoso section. This is amongst the nicest parts of the concerto – a lively string subject giving way to some swirling scale passages for organ and alternating with a jaunty dotted rhythm sentence that does truly belong in a circus. What fun! The episode was kept tautly together, despite the inherent difficulties of a soloist performing way up at the organ loft, with his back to and at a considerable distance from the orchestra (which is furthermore quite difficult to hear, because of the immediacy to the soloist of the organ’s own sound).

There followed the kernel of the work; an introspective meditation on a rather angular, dotted rhythm theme that forms the basis of a dialogue between organ and orchestra, characterized by an ambiguity as to prevailing mode. It was here that Bond’s registration skills were really displayed; without the Solo organ he was bereft of a raft of solo pipe colours and was obliged to do some scampering around, substituting here and adjusting there, in order to put together what came across as a generous tonal palette. It was beautifully done.

Next came the fast quasi-recapitulation of the opening material, all taken at a breathless pace and giving rise to the only transitory lapse of good ensemble in the performance.  The second half of the movement leads into a splendidly expressionist cadenza, in which Bond gave the organ its head and showed just how well the old girl can still gallop.

The following Trés calme section takes one, in Janus fashion, back to the serious or religious Poulenc, the opening sounding for all the world like an accompanied chorale prelude, before a big build up leads to some massive cadential chords and a burst into the urgent repetitive phrases of the succeeding allegro. Back to the fairground here, the slightly irritating theme like an ear-worm boring incessantly into the musical skull.

Finally, a return to the organ of Bach and his world: declamatory, cantabile, improvisatory, with Bond creating some evocative combinations with the string textures to create an atmosphere of stained glass windows and lingering incense, before the whole thing concluded with the undoubtedly deliberate semitone reference to THAT Bach toccata and a grandiose unison Great to Pedal note with accompanying snatched string chord. The performance received a standing ovation and repeated stage calls for the soloist.

The concert concluded with as fine an account of the Tchaikovsky E minor symphony in this hall as I can recall. I must confess to it being far from my favourite symphony by this composer – the even numbers take the podium places for that. It’s the opening clarinet theme (even if beautifully delivered, as it was) that strikes me as being a little bilious; and seeing it is the motto theme for much of the symphony, goes some way to explaining the aversion.

Still, given this performance, I was compelled to re-examine that prejudice and concede the work to have considerable attractions. A lot of it had to do with Gueller’s understanding of the architecture and building massive structures from defined segments with, however, seamlessly grouted joints and pleasingly scaled buttresses.

Some of these building blocks had enormous energy: I particularly loved his treatment of the opening movement’s second subject. The whole bowed, unison string F sharp simply burst into an ascending phrase of compelling vigour. He also managed to avoid any lugubriousness in the motto theme dominated coda.

The horn solo of the Andante is one of Tchaikovsky’s most celebrated melodies and principal hornist Prozesky delivered it nigh faultlessly and then went on to shape a lovely dialogue with the solo oboe before Gueller created one of his seamless transitions into the lush and passionate second theme.

The enigmatic waltz followed, Gueller nurturing a borderline atmosphere between melancholy and abandonment. And then, like an all-night reveller emerging into a new day, we were met with the bright E major acclamations of the finale. Brass were splendid – nowhere more so than in the duel between the trombones and horns with their bells lifted high. Hard to say who won. The Iron Duke would have said “A damned close-run thing.”

What: CPO Symphony review
Reviewer: Deon Irish