Piano Concerto (1995)

The Piano Concerto of 1995 will be the first featured composition of the month. A few encounters and events prompted the choice. 

Roelof’s youngest son, Roelof Temmingh Jr, is busy with his music studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He contacted me a few months ago, sharing the exciting news that he is learning his father’s piano concerto. I thought it would be a special start to the series of Composition of the Month, with Roelof Jr sharing his views on the concerto. 

DeWet Bruwer, an old student of Melanie Horne (the pianist that performed the premiére of the concerto), shared a recording of the live premiére performance on Soundcloud. He also shared a few interesting memories related to the concerto. 

Personally, I always think back to many evenings of listening to Roelof’s music while he was still alive. He was so ‘proud’ of the concerto and enjoyed the energy and excitement of the third movement. I am confident to say that the Piano Concerto was one of his favourite own compositions. The early influences of Bartók, Shostakovich, Prokofief and Kabalevsky are evident throughout the work. 

Winfred Lüdemann from the University of Stellenbosch published a review of the score of Roelof’s Piano Concerto (1995) in a SAMUS Journal (no. 18) of 1998. He kindly gave permission to me to share a few of his thoughts as written in the review.

Roelof composed six other concertos before he attempted the daunting task of writing a piano concerto. There were two earlier efforts but he gave up on the task because he found it too challenging. Soon after a triumphant performance of his Sonata for Violin and Piano (1993) by Gina Beukes and Melanie Horne, the opportunity to tackle this daunting task presented itself again, and Roelof felt confident enough to finally meet this eluding challenge. The concerto is well-suited for the distinct artistry of the late Melanie Horne (a colleague and friend), the dedicatee.

Roelof chose to write a concerto that strove for a balance between the tradition of the 19th-century piano concerto and the demands of a contemporary musical language. During the last 15 years of the 20th century, Roelof produced works that were easily understood and appreciated, and his piano concerto was no exception. Lüdemann mentioned the following in the review:

•    The concerto is a ‘showpiece’ for both the soloist and the orchestra. The virtuoso solo part is pianistically highly effective and the orchestration is skilfully handled to give ample opportunity to all concerned to display their skills.
•    The work contains a wealth of remarkable and beautiful melodies that attract immediate attention from the listener. Roelof had the ability to create melodies that could fix themselves in the mind of the listener. Lüdemann felt that the melodies are the most noteworthy aspect of the concerto as a whole. He mentions the inspiring first theme of the second movement - it is of an extraordinary quality as if it arose from an external creative impulse.
•    The influence of Shostakovich (a major influence of Roelof’s style) is very obvious. Some listeners will certainly criticise Roelof for modelling himself on Shostakovich too closely.
•    Roelof’s unique personality comes to the fore on a structural level. All three movements can be described as sectional. Each movement consists of a vague series of sections that follow one after the other. Each section has its own particular character and level of tension. The transitional passages are of varying length and they often lead to exciting climaxes. Devices such as thematic contrast, development and recapitulation are present. The third theme of the first movement makes for instance several re-appearances in the other two movements.
•    Roelof integrates both atonal and neo-tonal structures. The first and last movements are based on the tonal centre of A, while the middle movement centres on C. This minor-third relationship  represents one of the most important structural forces of the concerto throughout. It determines many harmonic and melodic configurations such as  frequent chords containing only a minor third; parallel thirds as filling material in passages consisting essentially of parallel octaves; and the minor third as an important constituent interval in melodies and accompaniment figures.
•    The octatonic scales are also frequently used.

"Mary Rörich’s review of the Piano Concerto in Business Day of the 2nd of May, 1996." 

Superb treatment for iconoclast 

SA COMPOSER Roelof Temmingh is something of an iconoclast and recluse, whose comfort zone is located beneath the shadows of the Helderberg mountains and behind an abrasive wit designed to unsettle even his admirers. He approaches his creativity with a blend of ironic defensiveness, arrogance and amused superiority, classifying his prolific oeuvre as “easy” pieces, “Saturday afternoon” pieces and “difficult” pieces. 

Composing is for him as natural as breathing, thus “Saturday afternoon” pieces might represent those mercurial shafts of inspiration that all composers have from time to time; but, the terms “easy” and “difficult” refer rather to audience accessibility than the composer’s own particular struggle to bring a work to fruition. 

Most creators find it difficult to change mode from a deliberately audience-friendly to a highly complex technically and aesthetically challenging idiom. Not so with Temmingh. Not that he is as concerned with marketing himself as his peers, Peter Klatzow and Kevin Volans, but he has sufficient confidence in his ability to find eager interpreters as well as a general listenership who will be drawn to his deliberately approachable material and possibly recognise his invariably superb craftsmanship. 

His Piano Concerto of 1995, whose world première was given by the Transvaal Philharmonic Orchestra last week, is undoubtedly an “easy” piece, unselfconsciously accented by Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Kabalevsky, Bartok and other “conservative” contemporary masters who chose, or were forced, to confine themselves to the forms and gestures of traditional Western art music. Temmingh is not, it would appear, remotely concerned regarding the derivative nature of his work, nor has he made any real effort to add to either the structural or technical apparatus of the genre. 

He has presumably interpreted his SAMRO commission as a straightforward request for a piece of music that can be easily programmed in the somewhat timid SA concert repertoire. That he has succeeded was more than attested to by enthusiastic audience response in Pretoria and Johannesburg. 

His concerto has an expressive vitality, command of technique, orchestral texturing and timbral interplay, and ideal balance between length and the developmental potential of material. 

The first movement opens with a declamatory glissando on trombones and is characterised by two contrasting themes, both of which are memorable in their innately pianistic cast - texturally, rhythmically and melodically. The second movement is reminiscent of those mildly lugubrious andantes in which Prokofiev specialised, angular if eloquent in line, generally modal in harmony and, if not as slow as some of the great Romantic adagios, nevertheless sufficiently measured to invite contemplation. The finale is strongly thematic and with that sense of energy that typifies most classical rondo-finales. 

Although the work’s orchestral palette is strongly dominated by brass and percussion (given virtuosic treatment by the orchestra), it is the piano part which dominates throughout, although without relying on that aesthetic of virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake that characterises the Romantic showpiece genre. And, in dedicating the work to pianist Melanie Horne, Temmingh has not only acknowledged her artistry, he has written it into his music. 

Horne is a pianist and creative personality who is robust, intuitively musical and compelling in her stage presence. She has become one of the SA music scene’s commanding forces, as soloist and chamber musician. She ranks with the best of visiting artists, bringing to her every performance a confidence in her own particular insights, a versatile technique, focus, stamina and rich piano sound. Effectively accompanied by conductor David Tidboald and the Transvaal Philharmonic Orchestra, she made Temmingh’s work the undeniable centre of a programme that consisted otherwise of bread-and-butter (albeit crowd-drawing) orchestral music. 

It remains for SA sponsors, concert managements and audiences to take the next logical step and programme Temmingh’s so-called “difficult” pieces. They deserve a hearing and their author would doubtless benefit by more widespread encouragement for his more progressive compositions.

I am sharing a few of the reviews, a recording of the premiére and some interesting facts.


COENRAAD VISSER on the eagerly awaited premiere of Roelof Temminghs first piano concerto

First performances of new orchestral works by South African composers are, unfortunately, so rare that any first performance is quite an event - the more so when the new work is substantial, not merely a brief introduction played at the start of a concert, seemingly to get it out of the way of the mainstream repertoire.

So it was almost with bated breath that the lamentably minuscule audience at Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium greeted the world premiere of Roelof Temmingh’s piano concerto.

After all, the omens were favourable: Temmingh has long been one of a handful of South African composers who consistently produce work of a high standard; the excellent Transvaal Philharmonic Orchestra was to be conducted by the ever-reliable David Tidboald; and in Melanie Horne the composer had the perfect performer to do justice to his work.

This concerto is Temmingh’s third attempt at writing a work of this type, but the first one he has actually completed. It is a further example of Temmingh’s more accessible style, a hallmark of his recent output. It is conventional in form, updated with more than cursory references to Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Prominent parts were written for percussion and brass, not always the TPO’s most proficient sections, although in this performance they acquitted themselves well.

The prominence given to these sections, though, did cause serious problems of internal balance. On a few occasions, emphasis on the piano, playing in its weakest register, was (predictably) overwhelmed by the blazing brass.

All credit to Horne, though. A seasoned performer of local music, she had all the qualities required to do justice to the work: an infallible technique to sustain her virtually without pause and the mental faculties not only to play a first performance from memory, but stylistically to give a flawless reading.


Interesting facts and stories around the Piano Concerto

  • In an article that appeared in Die Matie, Lizl Strauss asked Roelof the following:

Wat is u eie gunstelingwerk?

“As ek iets van myself moes kies, sal dit die derde deel van my eerste klavierkonsert wees, want dis lekker en ‘exciting’. Maar dit is snaaks om 3 of 4 uur in die môre, met inagneming van die bure, note (sag) te speel wat eintlik fortissimo moet wees.”

  • Die klavierkonsert was ’n opdragwerk van SAMRO. Die doel waarvoor die opdrag vir die WERK gegee is, was vir uitvoering deur Melanie Horne met die NSO en/of KSO. Roelof Temmingh is R10 000 betaal vir die klavierkonsert. Die klavierkonsert is voltooi in September 1995.
  • DeWet Bruwer, ’n oud-student aan die Universiteit van Stellenbosch en klavierleerling van Melanie Horne, het die volgende met my gedeel:

“My gedagtes rondom die werk :  weet jy, dis een van daardie stukke musiek wat vir my ’n soort ‘haunting’ effek het, vir baie redes. Ek dink ek was 1ste jaar op Stellenbosch toe Melanie dit begin leer het vir die première. Sy het dit baie vir my voorgespeel en BAIE gevloek omdat sy met sekere passasies gesukkel het. En sover ek onthou, het Roelof dit baie snaaks gevind dat Melanie enigsins kon sukkel met iets wat hy geskryf het, en hy het ’n paar keer gesê as SY dit moeilik vind, het hy iets reggedoen…. Anyway, ek onthou sy was baie stressed vir die première, maar sy was self mal oor die werk en op haar tipiese perfeksionistiese manier, wou sy dit perfek speel. Sover ek onthou het sy dit gememoriseerd gespeel, wat ook vir haar ’n groot aspek van die voorbereidings was.

Nog iets wonderlik:  Roelof het in Januarie 1996 (m.a.w. net voor ek my studies by Melanie begin het, nadat ek matriek by Zorada les gehad het) vir my ’n kopie van die score gegee. Toe was daar nog nie ’n klavier-part nie so dis full score, in sy handskrif (nog nie op Sibelius of wat-ook-al geset nie) en voorin het hy vir my geskryf ‘Geniet jou voltydse musiekstudies! Hoop jy speel dié een ook eendag!’. Nou ja, ongelukkig het ek dit nooit regtig gespeel nie - die geleentheid was net nooit daar nie, maar ek het op ’n stadium groot dele daarvan onder die vingers gehad.

In elk geval, ek sal nooit vergeet nie - toe Melanie dood is op 14 Februarie 1998, aan die begin van my derde jaar op Stellenbosch, was ons natuurlik almal teen die grond. Net na die begrafnis het ons ’n musiekgeskiedenis-klas by Roelof gehad. Die studente het ingestap en hy het nie ’n woord gesê nie. Hy het eenvoudig hierdie enigste opname van die concerto in die CD-speler gesit en ons het dit almal gesit en luister. Van die ‘clueless’ studente het natuurlik nie verstaan wat aangaan nie en hoekom dit relevant was nie. En toe dit verby was, was die klas ook sommer verby….. Roelof het eenvoudig sy goedjies gepak en geloop! Daardie dag is baie duidelik in my geheue ingebrand. In kort:  as ek aan Melanie dink, dink ek aan hierdie concerto en dus indirek ook aan Roelof. Dit is baie spesiaal vir my.”



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