Pianist Ben Schoeman
Pianist Ben Schoeman

SYMPHONY CONCERT. Thursday, 14 February 2019. CPO conducted by Victor Yampolsky, soloist Ben Schoeman; Beethoven: Symphony No 6 in F, Op 68 (“Sinfonia Pastorale”); Brahms: Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15. At Cape Town City Hall.

DEON IRISH reviews

It takes a work as large as the Brahms D minor concerto to displace a symphony as significant as the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony from the featured slot on a concert  programme. Although, of course, at its very first performance the work was also not given prime position in an extraordinarily crowded programme.

One knows of the increasing deafness which so troubled Beethoven in the early years of the 19th century; but the latter half of that first decade saw an increasingly confident composer adjusting to composition as a primarily cerebral rather than auditory process. What was becoming of greater concern to him, however, was his rather precarious financial status. He had no regular source of income and – apart from a meagre income from published works – was reliant on the patronage of his aristocratic supporters.

Theatres in Vienna at the time tended to close for the Christmas season and so it was that Beethoven was offered the use of the Theater an der Wien on the night of the 22 December for a benefit concert. The result was one of the most extraordinary concerts in musical history, made more notable by a failure of the heating. The frigid four hour long programme was as follows.

The first performances of both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, both completed in the preceding 15 months, and also of the first public performance of the Fourth Piano Concerto of 1806; some movements from his Mass in C (written for Haydn’s patrons, the Esterhazys, in 1807); and a concert aria written some years earlier. Having a chorus available, he decided to provide a more fitting finale and quickly confected the Choral Fantasia, consisting of a long piano introduction (which he improvised), a set of piano and orchestra variations on a theme (which he had written a decade earlier), and a concluding choral paean. The financial rewards of this positive orgy of music were not disclosed.

The pictorial Pastorale Symphony

The Pastorale Symphony was written at Heiligenstadt. Now a suburb in Vienna’s 19th district, its growth from a country village of some 60 houses and about 450 inhabitants in 1795 to a favoured country retreat was rapid, with 94 houses and 677 registered inhabitants by mid-1832, and reflects a desire by the growing bourgeoisie to emulate the aristocratic retreat to a country estate. The symphony is overtly pictorial, the composer having given each movement a descriptive title.

The opening movement is entitled Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arrival in the Country. (It doesn’t sound quite as naff in the original German.) Heiligenstadt (and the neighbouring village of Nussdorf) lay in wine country to the north-east of the city and both villages boasted “Heuriger” – simple taverns selling the current local vintage. I sometimes wonder whether the cheerful feelings of the title aren’t perhaps awakened by the first sip of a cool Grüner Veltliner, sitting outside an inn in the early evening sun, having just alighted from a dusty coach from Vienna.

The movement certainly does have something of the relaxed contentment one can experience at the commencement of a weekend in the country – and Beethoven underscores this sense of serenity in a movement that (as Michael Steinberg points out) has a remarkably slow moving harmonic pulse. This feeling is heightened in the development section, in which 72 of the first 94 bars consist purely of the catchy descending rhythmic figure central to the opening subject. It is as if absolutely nothing of significance is happening; just the evening falling, perhaps the air heady with the smell of cut hay and the first hint of wood smoke from the fires of supper.

Victor Yampolsky
Victor Yampolsky

‘Scene by the Brook’

I have explained that understanding of the movement so that my disappointment with this account can be clarified. I thought Yampolsky focussed rather too narrowly on the “cheerful” adjective in the title. In so doing, he is undoubtedly in distinguished company. But a more relaxed beginning to the weekend would have given the winds a lot more scope to bloom; would have provided a little “space” between repetitive phrases, such as the reprise to the ritornello and, more particularly, the lead in to the development; and might also have ensured a slightly steadier pulse.

The succeeding movement is called Scene by the Brook, and one can picture a gentle stream trickling down through the woods of the Kahlenberg, the mountain where the repetitive Turkish sieges of Vienna were finally vanquished in 1683, towards the nearby Danube.

It is a mesmerizing scene; perhaps our composer had enjoyed a good lunch and had gone for an afternoon walk which led him to this idyllic scene – just the spot for an afternoon reverie, with the gurgling water, the rustle of leaves and the tuneful bird song.

Strings depicted the murmuring waters beautifully and there were delightful solo contributions from the winds – particularly clarinet and bassoon.

Then came the highpoint of the reading – a wonderful account of the stomping scherzo, a peasant dance celebrating – who knows? – a good harvest, a wedding, a christening. This depiction of the village musicians is amused but affectionate: unlike Mozart, in his Ein Musikalischer Spass K.522, who conjures up a village sextet as excoriatingly awful as one could conceive, these musicians are rustic enough, but not without talent, and Yampolsky had them whipping up a barn dance as inviting as anything Copland could come up with. The hunting horns joined in to fine effect and the hautbois solo (slightly wooden on the first appearance) warmed into a gentler oboe in the reprise.

Storm music was a feature of the late Classical and early Romantic period. (The organ, naturally, rather leant itself to this treatment and there are scores of “storm” works written for the instrument.) Beethoven introduces a splendid sudden summer’s afternoon storm into this work: the revelry is broken off as the air becomes solemn before the storm breaks with sudden fury. And then, almost as quickly as it came, it was gone and Yampolsky was leading in the song of thanksgiving that concludes the work, with fine orchestral cohesion and lovely horn and clarinet solos.

The “Thankful Feelings” after the storm are directed to God, who has presumably spared crops and animals from hurt; this appears from the phrase “gratias agimus tibi” which is written over this movement in the composer’s sketches and which he also explained in a note he wrote to the concertmaster for the first performance.

The Pastoral Symphony was followed on this occasion not by the mighty 5th Symphony (as at its first performance), but by a work at least as dramatically different from it: Brahms’ monumental D minor Piano Concerto. What a work! Without a doubt a contender for my pole position piano concerto.

Yampolsky has something of a history with this work at this venue. In November, 1998, he conducted Jonathan Plowright in a textually accurate but somewhat diffident account of the solo line; and then, in May, 2012 he accompanied Bryan Wallick in a rather frenzied performance in which the chosen speed overcame any real sense of massiveness. (The horns, on that occasion, came very close to emulating Mozart’s village sextet….)

2008 UNISA International Piano Competition Winner

On this occasion, he was partnered with Ben Schoeman, the South African winner of the 2008 UNISA International Piano Competition and also subsequent international competitions, including a category award at the 2013 Cleveland Competition.

I might as well state upfront that there were a few textual errors, but that – in a work of this ferocious scale – that must be expected. Indeed, the absence of any such is probably as much a matter of luck as of technical skill.

More important, in this work, is the really hard task of bringing to musical life the composer’s frequently awkward musical combinations. Brahms’ great friend Joachim conducted the first performances with the composer himself as soloist. Joachim had already hurt the young composer with disparaging comments about the orchestration; but this paled into insignificance when the first performances – in Hamburg and Leipzig – were hissed by the audiences.

Well, the reaction of those audiences is not entirely surprising. The work is a flawed masterpiece; shot through with Cecilia’s startling “immortal fire”, but realized by a young apprentice orchestrator who had not yet mastered that craft by a long measure.

The central adagio was certainly the highpoint of the account. Schoeman delivered the extended arioso lines of the solo with engaging lyricism and Yampolsky nurtured the strings into a creamily textured accompaniment.

The outer movements – so often the case – didn’t quite work. Here I must say that I am becoming more and more of the view that this “new” Steinway simply does not have the sonorities of the former instrument. This seems particularly true of the bottom two octaves, which do not project with anything approaching the depth of tone formerly regularly experienced. I have sat in the same part of the balcony of this hall for some forty years and I do not believe that I am being fanciful in this statement. Of course, different players produce different tonal results; but I have now heard sufficient numbers of players in a variety of works to be able to express this concern.

The recapitulation of the of the opening maestoso provided graphic evidence of this, with Schoeman’s apparently heroic octaves following the arresting E major seventh chord barely competing with the clarinets, horns, lower strings and timpani. Equally disappointing was the lack of tonal presence in the striding left hand octaves of the poco piu moderato F major chorale; not to mention the succeeding left hand quavers under the urgent right hand thirds.

In the result, the whole movement simply lacked the sense of massive sonority which is its greatest feature.

The finale was too mannered for my taste. It had none of the vulgarity of Beethoven’s peasant revellers, and accordingly lacked the very foot-stomping energy that is the life-blood of this Rondo. This was not all attributable to the soloist: the pizzicato lower strings needed a much punchier attack, with only ten celli and basses to carry the bass line.

There were some lovely episodes: strings were rich in the B flat episode and the little fugato theme was quirkily delicate (with a lovely flute solo). And the con passione episode leading to the first cadenza did demonstrate Schoeman at his best, especially the skidding broken octaves.

Yampolsky and the orchestra really had the final word, though, with a lovely account of that wonderful final coda, its meno mosso commencement building up inexorably – with a frenetic second cadenza thrown in – to the final triumphant bars in which the piano – at the end – gives up the unequal contest and leaves the field to the orchestra.

Live Cape Town music diary: https://weekendspecial.co.za/whats-on-in-cape-town-music-diary/

What: CPO Symphony Concert review
Reviewer: A Deon Irish review