PROGRAMME: Music by Peter Klatzow, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler

CONDUCTOR: Bernhard Gueller

SOLOIST: Hanli Stapela, soprano

VENUE: Linder Auditorium, Parktown

RATING: ****

One of life’s great pleasures is to welcome a new piece of music. Should that particular composition have relevance to the country we live in, it’s even more meaningful.

Capetonian Peter Klatzow’s I Am an African for soprano and orchestra uses part of a speech given by Thabo Mbeki on May 8, 1996, on the occasion of the adoption by the Constitutional Assembly of the Constitution Bill while he was still deputy president.

It’s no surprise that the overall impression of it is a festive one. Only rarely before has such a florid, proud, and patriotic South African text been set to music.

Klatzow’s music truly let those words take wing against the backdrop of an exotic instrumentation.

Right from the introduction, with swirling strings and spectacular brass chords, to its climactic ending, it holds its spell.

Soprano Hanli Stapela handled the vocally challenging exclamations and the more lyrical, melodious parts with the kind of professionalism that only a singer with her taste and experience can achieve. Klatzow writes well for the voice and Stapela reminds us of that.

The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO) performed with dedication under the fine leadership of Bernhard Gueller.

Without much chance for everyone to get their breath back, the first half continued with a work that stands in total contrast with the Klatzow: Richard Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). While one may ideally wish for a slightly weightier tone at certain moments in this cycle, each song gains at every point from the beauty of Stapela’s voice and her alert way with the texts which is always evident.

In ideal performances of it, a kind of “dialogue of one” should be achieved between soprano and orchestra. The coming together of Stapela and Gueller is also successful in the sense that tempos are never drawn out.

They have a natural pulse in line with the words.

Her voice has, over the years, gained in distinctiveness and diction, often to gleaming effect, while her perfect breath control makes it sound relatively easy to let her voice float – especially in the kind of deeply nostalgic longing the composer requires from his interpreter.

In the second song, September, Stapela used her vocal range in a very confident and soothing way, even if the orchestral accompani- ment was a bit loud at times. Later, the horn solo was magically atmospheric, while the beautiful emotional denouement at the end was brilliantly achieved.

The highlight was the final one, Im Abendrot (At Sunset), as it ideally should be. Its heart-rending submission was communicated with touching sensitivity.

Gueller and the JPO gave another great performance of a Gustav Mahler symphony – the No 1 in D major, nicknamed Titan.

It didn’t totally reach the immense scale and kind of spontaneous perfection of their recent Fifth Symphony, but it nevertheless had lasting qualities.

One can fully encapsulate Gueller’s Mahler. He is by far not an interventionist Mahlerian. Here he gives us a straightforward symphonic overview in which the more overtly programmatic elements are never allowed to threaten the work’s structural integrity. More praise is hardly needed.

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