Guest conductor Rossen Milanov
Guest conductor Rossen Milanov

SYMPHONY CONCERT, Thursday 29 August, 2019. Cape Town City Hall. CPO conducted by Rossen Milanov, soloist Gary Hoffman; Debussy: Prélude L’Après-Midi d’un Faune; Walton: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra; Rimsky-Korsakov: “Scheherazade”, Symphonic Suite for Orchestra, Op 35.


Conductor Rossen Milanov is making his Cape Town debut during this series and, as an indisposition had prevented me attending the first of his two concerts, it was with considerable interest that I watched him make his way to the podium for Debussy’s intensely evocative orchestral reverie, the “Prelude to the afternoon of a faun”.

Inherently elegant conductor

Milanov strikes one immediately as an inherently elegant conductor, something in his demeanour reminding one of Louis Frémaux, who was nothing if not elegant in his restrained gesture and calm demeanour. Not that Milanov is averse to the big gesture; but they employed with discretion, and all the more effective because of that. For the most part his direction is delicately precise and almost discreet.

I found him also to be intensely musical with personal interventions in all three scores on offer demonstrating a willingness to trust his own musical instincts, without departing from the requirements of the composer’s presumed intentions.

The Debussy is, for me as for many others, a seminal work. I can still recall the extraordinary impact it had at the first live performance I heard of the work, in this very venue and conducted by Frémaux himself. The piece commences with one of the most celebrated flute solos in the orchestral repertoire: a languidly sinuous 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, the CTSO’s legendary principal flute, Lucien Grujon, caught Frémaux’s eye, raised his instrument to his lips, and – without further direction and seemingly effortlessly – slid out the initial burst of silvery E major gorgeousness that infests Debussy’s creation.

The work was subsequently turned into a ballet by Diaghilev, not entirely 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.”

Heavens knows what he would have made of the violence done to orchestral scores by many – probably most – contemporary ballet and opera productions.

The major criticism of this account was perhaps this very element. There was missing, to my mind, this very fluidity, with too many notes being delivered as separate and discreet entities rather than as an organic part of a larger flow of sound. But that is ultimately a matter of execution: I saw nothing to indicate that this was an effect Milanov wanted; rather that, more likely, players did not quite achieve the essential legato serenity required. More French repertoire is indicated and it is good to see that the Poulenc Organ Concerto will feature in the next season.

Distinguished soloist Gary Hoffman
Distinguished soloist Gary Hoffman

Beautifully delivered

Next up was the Walton Cello Concerto, with its intriguing opening, with an elegiac solo lament over delicately pulsing accompaniment, beautifully delivered by the distinguished soloist, Gary Hoffman. Orchestral playing seemed more idiomatic in this piece, with the prominent opposing solos for horn, clarinet and flute well executed. Hoffman displayed some imperious playing in a score that seems surprisingly un-English to those who associate Walton with the Crowns Imperial and Orbs and Sceptres of his stately music. His intonation is splendidly secure and was demonstrated in the magisterial double stopping on lower strings, in particular.

Although the work never quite achieves the stature of the earlier Viola Concerto, it is certainly characterized by some virtuoso writing – perhaps particularly in the second movement allegro, with its somewhat Gallic infusion giving it a certain cozenage to the preceding l’Après-midi. Perhaps it was the harp presence? Which having said, the bright percussion presence is quite disparate from the minimally employed antique cymbals of Debussy’s evocation. The final solo passage is a little showpiece in itself, with the strings being whacked by the bow into some form of harmonic submission.

I confess to finding the Theme and Variations a rather curious confection, particularly with what might be termed the slow movement being embodied somewhere in its entrails. The theme itself is soulful enough – but rather requires the lower strings to be more precisely chorded in the delicate staccato accompanying chords for the result to be accounted a success. The quasi-cadenza provided opportunity to the soloist to demonstrate a sensitive musical personality in an assured and reflective episode. But the following outburst saw Hoffman leaping through the rhythmically quirky writing with alacrity. Orchestral accompaniment was pleasingly assured. Worth noting was that the brass were beautifully integrated. This after a series of performances in which they were anything but; which merely goes to demonstrate that it is up to the conductor to enforce these things.

The most memorable moment of this performance, remained for the end: the very final cello note creating extraordinary effect with a seemingly endless dying away to virtually imperceptible sound levels. That resulted in a true a deep silent response. Well, that is to say, before the acclamations broke out.

Economic colouration

The concert concluded with a fine account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s great narrative symphony, Scheherazade. The score is a marvel of economic colouration, the impressively lush and diverse effects being obtained from no more than a relatively small and entirely usual symphonic ensemble.

But the piece is littered with instrumental solos for almost all instruments of the orchestra: and, on this occasion, they were almost without exception delivered with distinction. It would be churlish, however, not to mention the superb Kalendar Prince of Simon Ball’s solo bassoon; the pleasing harp contribution (harps had featured well all evening, actually); a really fine clarinet contribution from Daniel Prozesky and outstanding triple tonguing for the Festival in Baghdad (and at breakneck speed) from trumpeters Thompson and Schuster.

Milanov conducted the intricate score with an infallible memory and alluring grace. He is a natural narrator, it would seem; and his graceful gestures went some little way to becoming almost a balletic realization of the score. But one, I think, of which even Debussy would have approved.

Reviewer: Deon Irish