REVIEW: Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra

Conrad van Alphen

Conrad van Alphen

Published May 16, 2014



PROGRAMME: Music by Mendelssohn & Schumann

CONDUCTOR: Conrad van Alphen

SOLOIST: Antonio Pompa-Baldi, piano

VENUE: Linder Auditorium, Parktown

RATING: 4 stars


Pretoria born Conrad van Alphen has the knack to surprise with fresh interpretations of the standard repertoire and making those works speak with a voice reaching their core with both a spiritual and physical dimension. In works by Mendelssohn and Schumann there was spontaneous leadership, often exceptional sensitivity as well as insight in abundance.

The JPO, an orchestra who in recent years ad to work through a traumatic past, is securely on a healing path when nurtured by a conductor of this stature. In the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture by Mendelssohn, the upper strings were seldom an ideal unity in those passages requiring utmost precision, but the orchestra as a whole reflected a strong feeling of identification with the romantic spirit, with especially expressive woodwind playing throughout.

But is was really in the composer's Symphony No.3 in A minor, Opus 56 - Scottish that the orchestra thrived in a naturally paced performance that was never pressed too hard. This work, arguably Mendelssohn's greatest symphony, does only come off well when a conductor sticks to the basic tempos as indicated in the score.

This Van Alphen did throughout his reading of it. In the introduction the mood was at once positive and purposeful, and the music moved forward with a strong cumulative feeling. In the Allegro proper, the un poco agitato was faithfully observed. Throughout the performance there was precise attack as well as quite marked, but natural sounding fluctuations of tempo.

After the firmly characterised middle movements, with an Adagio which was adorned by a most tender, lovingly shaped phrasing, it was especially in the handling of the coda, marked Allegro maestoso assai, where not a trace of Victorian pompousness could be found, but rather a glorious, jubilant exultation.

The Italian pianist Antonio Pompa-Baldi proved himself to be a musically informed master craftsman in giving new life to a well trodden war-horse of a concerto: Schumann's Concerto in A minor, Opus 54. This was enlightening Schumann playing in which especially the composer's fascinating harmonic language spoke with a clarity very seldom encountered before.

There was also a quirkiness in the playing through unusual accentuation as well as repeated passages which were never handled as mere repeats, but were expressed with the most refined musical subtleties. Technically he has a firm grip on the work's structure and especially in the first movement's cadenza Pompa-Baldi encompassed every aspect of Schumann's very particular pianistic style.

The Intermezzo was full of mellowness without losing any aspect of the piece's true character. This was all achieved with a range of tonal patina that brought out the best of Schumann in a more meandering mood. Van Alphen and the JPO were sensitive partners in this often visionary exploration.

In the gruelling Allegro vivace-finale Pompa-Baldi explored further and deeper into the core of its tightly-knit keyboard structures, its high level of virtuosity and its unending tricky forward propulsion. The single obstruction in this process which did occur on Wednesday evening, had no influence on his playing as a whole. It was totally perceptive, loving and especially spirited.

Antonio Pompa-Baldi will be heard in two solo recitals in Gauteng this weekend. Tomorrow (Saturday) at 8pm he performs in the Linder Auditorium, Parktown, Johannesburg and Sunday at 4 pm at the Tauromenium, 330 Derrick Ave, Waterkloof Ridge, Pretoria. He will play works by Liapunov, Chopin, Liszt, and the contemporary Italian composer Roberto Piana.

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