Our century is characterised by two prominent social phenomena: a hunger towards everything, but time for just about nothing. For most of our grand-parents music history ended with Stravinsky and Britten. Since that era until now an impressive list of new composer’s voices, literally from John Adams to Alois Zimmermann, has been added to those ever conscious music lovers who do not shy away from music of our time.  Apart from that, we live in an era where the once lost works of especially secondary older masters begin to resurface. That means that music history is constantly expanding. Musicology not only devours music of the future, but also digs deeper into the past. It is at a music festival like the SICMF where, in musical terms, the real adventurers craving for enlightenment regarding new music, the lesser known jewels of the past, as well as the rock solid classics, should be. Stellenbosch becomes an enclave where every form of hunger towards musical excellence and adventurousness will be appeased. And what about the world at large… there, outside? Switch off. Shouldn’t it be able to look after itself for a mere ten days annually?

PAUL BOEKKOOI listened to and reports on works by Taneyev, Dvorák, Prokofiev and Gulda which were performed on Wednesday and Thursday evening in the Endler.

Sergei Taneyev is a name everyone has heard about while reading through Russia’s fascinating music history – full of intrigues, colourful characters, some explosive historical periods as well as the pulling power of a long standing folklore tradition plus, of course, the effect Communism had after 1917. Taneyev passed away two years before that revolution in October, but he might have been sad about the fall of the Tsarist period which lasted for centuries. Listening to his Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 30, in a dedicated performance by Luis Magalhaes (piano), Andrej Bielow (1st violin), Alissa Margulis (2nd violin), Gareth Lubbe (viola) and Alexander Buzlov (‘cello), was outwardly a powerful experience, but the work’s stylistic subtext is rather all over the place and quite fragmented.

There are many inventive ideas in each of its four movements, but very few of them are developed organically. Strangely, the opening movement marked Introduzione. Adagio mesto – Allegro patetico carries strongly limbed thematic arguments combined with an elevated symphonic thrust which at times was soul stirring,  but at the end did not display enough of the kind of wholesome wholeness one does find in some of Taneyev’s contemporaries’ work.  This was not a matter of the musicians not succeeding in elevating the music’s structure and meaning, but within all the intensity of the playing they might have missed out a bit on the more refined point-making underlying this movement.

The following Scherzo: Presto was very promising – especially due to the spirited way Magalhaes created some magical elfin-like runs and phrases from the Bösendorfer concert grand and the strings who responded red-bloodedly to the virtuosity of the composer’s writing. The ensemble sounded predominantly excellent, apart from a couple of rough patches, perhaps due to an adrenaline-overflow. Initially the Largo impressed with its architectural arches and the continuous ostinato bassline which sounded as if Taneyev copied it straight from a Baroque score showing examples of how to write a chaconne. But after a while the structure became predictable and simultaneously a bit overblown in performance.

In the Finale: Allegro vivace more of Taneyev’s own voice came through, but its seriousness and lack of contrasts in mood undermined its potential. Notwithstanding all these cryptic comments, the five musicians were hell bent on sharing their conviction that the work is worth hearing. For curiosity’s sake and seeing that this was a once-off performance, one quite willingly shared their views and their impressive efforts.

Last night’s Faculty Concert 7 was the first of four orchestral concerts on the SICMF’s programme which will continue to be heard daily until Sunday afternoon in the Endler, with the final concert of the festival at 16:30.

Thursday’s concert opened with a 16-piece string ensemble performing Dvorák’s Nocturne in B major, Opus 40 – a work whose programme note in the official programme book was rather confusing. It certainly is an early work and perhaps even earlier than the opus number might suggest. The performance was neat, although a bit tentative-sounding in places. This was most likely due to the fact that a conductor might just have managed to get the underlying pulse rising to a level where everyone would have closely followed it. However, it was more than just good to acquaint oneself with a composition one might only hear once in a lifetime.

Scarcely a bigger contrast with the second work, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no.1 in D major, Opus 19, could be imagined. Here a composer was at work who wanted to overwhelm with his first composition in a (for him) new genre. As a pianist of world-renown who already wrote his own piano concerto to be performed by him in his graduation year, all attention was focused on Prokofiev – especially from those violinists who were longing for a new Russian work.  The Glazunov and Tchaikovsky concertos were already somewhat long in the tooth.

Soloist Alissa Margulis and her conductor, Daniel Boico, gave us a spectacular demonstration of how to approach the work. The opening Andantino is a kind of reasonably slow moving exposition of the themes Prokofiev used.  They are predominantly lyrical, but as the movement develops, the tempo accelerates gradually.  Ms Margulis’ strong bowing and rich accents immediately put her in the spotlight. There are no technical barriers for her and her athletic immersion into the most challenging passages of this movement was brought off with a high level of musical integrity and a sound that reminded one of the purity of surgical steel, but without any sign of tonal iciness. To the contrary: her tone stayed meltingly warm.

The Scherzo: Vivacissimo was a thorough delight, with sweeping and, where demanded, jump bowing amazingly well accentuated and controlled.  Here Boico did all but inhibit the orchestra. The woodwind were on a roll and the brass sounded powerful, but not overpowering. The finale, marked Moderato, came off as well. Its romantic opening theme started to soar as it was taken over by the soloist and orchestra. Here is also a gradual built-up of typical Prokofiev-like menace in which most soloists near the end drown under the massive outrage of the orchestral forces. Alissa Margulis not only kept afloat, but was leading the work to its final climax and, in a way, also its apotheosis with the typical vigour of a virtuoso with unlimited power of expression.

Friedrich Gulda (1930-2000) was both a concert- and jazz pianist who had overflowing talent, but later in life became rather an eccentric and anti-establishment figure and, for his fans, an idol. The performance of his Concerto for Violin (originally for ‘cello) and Wind Orchestra was given its second outing at the SICMF, with Peter Martens presenting us with the ‘cello version a couple of years ago. It’s a romp, fiendishly difficult and no joke – definitely not for the performers that is. Soloist Andrej Bielow enjoyed himself and communicated that mood to his audience.

Gulda’s eclectic score is, especially in the opening Overture, boundlessly energetic, quirky, ironic, even slightly sardonic, but never dull. Daniel Boico let go from the first bar of this express-train journey. And were we not lucky to have some super-duper brass players, plus clarinettist Ferdinand Steiner from Austria whose pyrotechnics seem to be unlimited in whatever style he performs! In the Idylle a number of other orchestral players had solo parts, although here Bielow again illustrated his marvellous feeling for performing playful pastiche – not something everyone can do with such a natural feeling for it. During the movement marked as Cadenza Bielow was halfway through surprised by the masked, unannounced appearance through a side door of violist Gareth Lubbe. He took over the audience’s attention from everything else that was happening on stage, while projecting his overtone singing and simultaneously trying to look and move like an escaped zombie.  He let everyone laugh – even those audience members who seemed to be at least 90+ years of age.

More pastiche followed in the Largo, while in the Finale: Allegro vivace, in which some of the uninhibited fun of the opening movement was recalled, somehow tapped the last energy from the musicians and perhaps the audience alike. Oh, what a night!


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