JOHANNESBURG PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA

PROGRAMME: Music by Liadov, Tchaikovsky and Dvorák

CONDUCTOR: Bernhard Gueller

SOLOIST: Ching-Yun Hu, piano

VENUE: Linder auditorium, Parktown

RATING: ***

The magical world of Anatol Liadov’s Eight Russian Folk Songs, Op 58 could only with great difficulty have been conveyed with a more subtle atmosphere than under the artistic guidance of Bernhard Gueller, the JPO’s principal guest conductor.

Gueller never allows the colours to become almost gaudy. He draws enthusiastic, but precise playing, caressing every dynamic nuance in the score with the kind of precision and skill which allows each of these eight sketches in sound to make its mark: in turn piquant or charming to suit the character of each. Clear, effervescent rhythmic pointing placed the cherry on the cake.

Petite Ching-Yun Hu is already a remarkable pianist. She’s also young, by the way. In Tchaikovsky’s fearsome Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op 23 she demonstrated brilliantly and with great feeling for musical line that this concerto also has delectable inner voices which are all too often overlooked.

Too many pianists approach it as a virtuoso warhorse. It can be as much a platform for the triumphant as a trap for the unwary. In broad terms Hu takes a more methodical and especially a more flexible approach. Nothing is left to chance. Shimmering pedal effects, delicate washes of notes and being expressively convincing is still more important to her than granitic power in, say, chord playing.

It was a pity this performance sounded under-rehearsed. The impression often struck me that the soloist and conductor seldom agreed on tempo. One example is in the typical Schumannesque build-up to the first movement cadenza. Here one encountered three tempos: one by the soloist, another by the conductor and a third by the solo clarinettist who couldn’t choose which of the previous two to follow. One would have loved to hear Hu’s playing under more ideal circumstances.

Everything was more solidly in place during the second and third movements, with her articulation often being highly expressive, like in the Prestissimo section of the former. The Finale, very fast and brilliant, gave way to the big tune which was broadened at the end in the most convincing way.

Gueller took structural control and a pulsating rhythmic drive in hand in his performance of Dvorák’s Symphony No 6 in D major, Op 60. There were quite a number of tempo fluctuations in the first movement, not always convincing. The Furiant-based Scherzo was exhilarating, while the conductor whipped up excitement just before The Finale’s coda. The upper string often sounded undernourished, due to less-than-ideal firmness regarding ensemble.

l The concert will be repeated on Sunday at 3pm in the ZK Matthews Hall, Unisa, Pretoria.