Wednesday, 17 August 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2016)



SOLITAIRES
KATHRYN STOTT, Piano
BIS 2148 / ****1/2

This is a handy anthology of 20th century French music, with the composers casting a fond retrospective glance at musical forms and compositional styles of the past. The term “neoclassical” comes to mind but that does not apply to all works, which are tonal with the tendency to twelve-tone technique strongly resisted. 

Jehan Alain's brief Prelude & Fugue (1935) is a neo-Bachian tribute by a composer better known as an organist. Henri Dutilleux's only Piano Sonata (1946-48), in three movements, is both lyrical and jazzy in its resourceful use of harmonies, capped by an imposing yet free-wheeling Chorale and Variations as a finale.

The best known work is Maurice Ravel's La Tombeau De Couperin (1914-17), with six movements including a prelude, fugue, baroque dances and toccata to close. Each piece was written in memory of a friend killed in the Great War. British pianist Kathryn Stott is sensitive to all form of rhythms, idioms and nuances which make for very lively performances. 

She concludes with Olivier Messiaen's Le Baiser De L'Enfant-Jesus (Kiss Of The Infant Jesus) from the massive 20-piece cycle Vingt Regards Sur L'Enfant Jesus (1944), a gentle lullaby built over a repeated ground bass. New is old, and old is new in this revelatory recital disc.



BENJAMIN BEILMAN, Violin
YEKWON SUNWOO, Piano
Warner Classics 0825646008971 / ****

Every young musician's dream is to cut a debut recording, and American violinist Benjamin Beilman, winner of the 2010 Montreal International Violin Competition, shows his mettle in an interesting programme of contrasted works. In Schubert's lyrical Grand Duo in A major (D.574) that opens, Beilman crafts a tone that is wiry, incisive and always on-edge. 

This might come across to the listener as acidic and unyielding for Romantic repertoire, and is far better suited to the two 20th century works that follow. The mystery and folk-inflected pages of Janacek's Violin Sonata however benefit from this direct, full-frontal approach.

For Stravinsky's Divertimento, an adaptation of music from the ballet The Fairy's Kiss (which in turn uses Tchaikovsky's music), the narrative qualities and sense of fantasy are well brought out. The recital comes full circle with the Vienna of Fritz Kreisler's Viennese Rhapsodic Fantasietta, a single-movement violin concerto in all but name. 

Unsurprisingly, it is based on the waltz, opening in a tonally ambiguous haze before relaxing into the congenial dance that is so beloved. Beilman and the ever-sensitive Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, himself a multi-award winner, ably provide the enjoyable conclusion that this disc deserves.

Monday, 15 August 2016

RITES OF CHIMES / Ding Yi Music Company / Review



RITES OF CHIMES
Ding Yi Music Company
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (13 August 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 August 2016 with the title "Old-meets-new mash-up".

Conducted by Lim Yau, the Ding Yi Music Company gave the Singapore premiere of Zhou Long's Rites Of Chimes, a work first performed by Yo-Yo Ma and the National Traditional Orchestra of China in New York in 2000. Reprising the Ma role this evening was Lim's cellist son Lin Juan but this was not a cello concerto in the traditional sense.

Scored lightly for cello, six Chinese instruments and a battery of percussion, the Western instrument was no interloper but one tightly weaved into a web of sound that was both traditional and modern. It was as if the cello were a traveller in time, gazing into the past like an outsider looking into a faraway and exotic culture and telling his story as one with the ensemble.


Lin was not an overtly showy soloist but a highly dependable one to blend in, yet he expressed a voice of his own all through the work's six separate parts that played for 70 minutes. Spirit Of Chimes was the first piece, one which imagined a scene from prehistory, with sounds from bone flutes (represented by Ng Hsien Han's ocarina) and assortment of percussive sounds.

It was into this primordial fray that the cello's tones, microtones, plucks and slides were thrown into, and the result was a old-meets-new mash-up. Much more traditional was Impressions Of Wintersweet, based on the old melody Meihua Sannong (Plum Blossom), with just Ng's dizi, cello pizzicatos and discreet percussion creating an intimate spell.


Tipsy Improvisation showcased Chin Yen Choong's erhu with cello and ensemble in a fast and inebriated dance with frequent changes in meter as the title suggested. Inspired by Du Fu's Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets, a favourite subject of the composer's, it took all of conductor Lim's directorial nous to keep the forces in check and time.

Tang Court Music could be said to be the heart of the work. Its loud and portentous chords, filled with dissonances and sustained tensions, stood for the pomp and ceremony of Tang dynasty royalty. It is from this cacophonous banquet of sound that Japanese gagaku was derived, one which came to an end with a smart snap of two wooden strips.


It was back to earlier rusticity in Dunhuang Pipa, a melodious evocation of the ancient Silk Road, with Chua Yew Kok's pipa running in unison with huqin, cello, dizi, Soh Wee Kiat's sheng, Kenny Chan's zhongruan and Yvonne Tay's guzheng, each taking their turns if not all together. The final piece, Tales From The Cave, introduced the shrill high-pitched banhu (Chin) and three-stringed plucked sanxian (Chan) for a wild final dance.


One that celebrated the Buddhist iconography of the land, of graven images, sculptures and frescoes etched into history, an extended cello cadenza from Lin brought the work sharply into focus. As if emerging from a dream, the ensemble of ten virtuosos concluded Zhou's masterpiece of Chinese music with masterly aplomb. 


SOIREE OF THREE / The Zephyr Ensemble / Review



SOIREE OF THREE
The Zephyr Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Friday (12 August 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 August 2016 with the title "Gutsy, skilful debut by trio".

The Zephyr Ensemble is a piano trio formed by Singaporean violinist Wilford Goh and Indonesian-American siblings cellist Bryant Gozali and pianist Aileen Gozali, who have been long-time residents here. Pursuing their musical studies in London, Los Angeles and New York, they presented a debut concert which was a short history of the piano trio.

The piano trio's supposed inventor was Joseph Haydn, whose Trio No.39 in G major opened the evening. This medium in its infancy has the piano as de facto leader, with strings doubling the piano's line or providing harmonic support. Despite this, an excellent balance was struck between all three musicians, with clarity of textures and crispness of articulation being the order of the day.


Goh's violin carried the melody beautifully in the slow 2nd movement, while Aileen's piano provided the fireworks in the famous Gypsy Rondo, which raced away with gay abandon. The direction Presto was taken literally, with no pause of breath in this slick and well-oiled reading.

More complex and technically demanding was Mendelssohn's Trio No.1 in D minor, possibly the most popular and most often-programmed of all trios here. While challenging for performers, this is aural candy for listeners which explains its welcome reception. The trio brought out passion and drama in its 1st movement, which soon dissipated in a flowing cantabile like a “song without words” for the slow movement.

Before anyone could be lulled into a blissful reverie, the Scherzo's ebullience soon sparked into life as the trio skilfully maneuvered through its free-wheeling pages. The finale was just as lively, with Bryant's cello bringing out the big tune, for which all attention was eventually lavished in its emphatic and brilliant conclusion.    


Virtually unknown is the Trio No.1 in F major by Camille Saint-Saens, but it received the same detailed and meticulous treatment as the Mendelssohn. More importantly, the work's overall charm was well highlighted in its four movements. Particularly curious was the slow 2nd movement, which began in hushed and mysterious tones, but like many of the Frenchman's works, melodic interest soon took over and illuminated the scene.

Perhaps a few more practices would have helped polish the fast 3rd and 4th movements to perfection, but there was little denying the gutsiness and dedication in the enterprise. Because of that, this not overly serious work is worth hearing again.

Moving into the 20th century, American composer Paul Schoenfield's heady Café Music provided the sweet icing on a well-baked cake. Its three movements were a summation of many popular American idioms, from ragtime, country, bluegrass, jazz to Klezmer.

Described by the composer as “a kind of high class dinner music”, the threesome immediately threw off all hint of restraint and collectively let down their hair. Whether the Rubato slow movement was a slow rag or sultry tango was immaterial, all that mattered was they were having a good time, and the appreciative audience was sharing every bit of it.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2016)



QUEEN ELISABETH COMPETITION
OF BELGIUM: PIANO 2016
QEC 2016 / ****1/2

Hot off the press, this 4 CD box-set of highlights from the 2016 Queen Elisabeth International Piano Competition was issued within a week of its conclusion in Brussels. The performances demonstrate the extremely high levels of artistry achieved at the world's top concours today. Predictably it was with warhorse concertos that the top prizes were sealed. 

Lukas Vondracek (Czech Republic, 1st prize) gave a sizzling reading of Rachmaninov's Third Concerto, with Henry Kramer (USA, 2nd prize) not far behind in barnstorming Prokofiev's Second Concerto. Both pianists and Alberto Ferro (Italy) who garnered 6th prize with Rachmaninov's First Concerto were partnered by the National Orchestra of Belgium conducted by Marin Alsop.

Vondracek, who performed at last year's Singapore International Piano Festival, also capped a fine performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No.21 with his own cadenzas. The competition's set piece concertos, Fabian Fiorini's Tears Of Lights and Claude Ledoux's A Butterfly's Dream, received world premiere recordings from Alexander Beyer (USA, 3rd prize) and Han Chi Ho (South Korea, 4th prize) respectively. 

A departure from the norm was a fourth disc with solo performances selected by a peer jury of young pianists, with the music of Ravel and Prokofiev featuring prominently. All in all, this is a feast of youthful and exuberant pianism. 

Landmark: The above was my 2000th review / article for The Straits Times, a music journey which began with my review of Evelyn Glennie's percussion recital, which was published on 20 June 1997.



20TH CENTURY MASTERPIECES
Warner Classics 2175002 (16 CDs) / ****

Now that we are well into the 21st century, here is a fond look back in time on the epoch-making classical works of the preceding hundred years, represented by works of 52 composers drawn from the vast back catalogues of the EMI labels of old. 

The journey starts in 1901 with Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto (with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes), a vestige of late Romanticism and ends with Thomas Ades' kinetically exciting Asyla of 1997 (conducted by Simon Rattle). In between are the great -isms that defined the breadth and depth of 20th century music, including impressionism, atonalism, neoclassicism, minimalism and post-modernism.

A slice of sheer diversity may be sampled in Disc 12 (spanning 1956 to 1961) which includes Walton's bittersweet Cello Concerto, Boulez's atonal songs of Le Soleil Des Eaux, Penderecki's shrieking shocker Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima and Bernstein's irrepressible Symphonic Dances from the musical West Side Story

Most of the works have with time become concert hall staples, but surely some space could have been reserved for the likes of Scriabin, Szymanowski, Ligeti, Stockhausen and Philip Glass. The only Asian work included was Toru Takemitsu's Water-Ways (1982). Despite the caveats, here is almost 20 hours of absorbing listening.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

A LITTLE BIT OF MAGIC / BRENDAN-KEEFE AU & AYANO SCHRAMM-KIMURA Vocal Recital Review



A LITTLE BIT OF MAGIC
Brendan-Keefe Au, Tenor
Ayano Schramm-Kimura, Soprano
Sim Yikai, Piano
Esplanade Recital Studio
Tuesday (2 August 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 August 2016 with the title "An enchanted evening".

One of the pleasures of a reviewer's lot is tracking the progress of talented musicians from their student years to their professional debuts and beyond. One such talent is tenor Brendan-Keefe Au, who has made significant progress since he was last reviewed in 2012. However one thing that has not changed is his rare skill and zeal in programming themed recitals.


A Little Bit Of Magic referred to the sense of wonder and enchantment encountered in the two-hour-long recital which encompassed five groups of songs united by common themes. He begun the Forest Theme with Lee Hoiby's Be Not Afeard (from The Tempest) and Henry Purcell's Come All Ye Songsters Of The Sky (The Fairy Queen). His clarity of enunciation and projection, as clear as a bell, were well noted.


Schubert's Das Müller und Der Bach (The Miller And The Brooklet) from Die Schöne Müllerin received a most poignant reading, where the heart-broken protagonist contemplates death by drowning. Shifting between minor and major keys, his pleading plucked on heart-strings and refused to let go. In contrast, his partner in song Japanese soprano Ayano Schramm-Kimura struck a dramatic presence in Schubert's Die Erlkönig (The Elf King), a relentless race against time with death by disease being the eventual outcome.


Ayano helmed much of the second set, the Water Theme songs, including Hugo Wolf's funereal Spirits on the Mummelsee Lake and Faure's wordless Vocalise-Etude. Her restraint and purity in the classically proportioned A Chloris by Reynaldo Hahn was a thing of beauty, while emoting beautifully in Czech for Dvorak's familiar Song To The Moon from Rusalka.

Three songs from the Sky Theme revealed near-perfect control from Au, from the transparent lines of Vaughan Williams The Infinite Shining Heavens to the ever-broadening melody of Liza Lehmann's Ah! Moon Of My Delight. In between, Mendelssohn's Auf Flügeln des Gesänges (On Wings Of Song) was gilded with a seamless cantabile. Whoever imagined the paradise mused was not in Germany, but rather exotic India?


Speaking of Faraway Lands as a theme, Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs were brought out with mysterious allure and sensuousness by Ayano. While not atonal, the music was nonetheless chromatically conceived and compactly structured. Unfortunately the audience's tendency to applaud after every short song became a distraction.


Pianist Sim Yikai provided more than adequate accompaniment, although his over-pedalling at parts muddied some of the more densely-textured songs. However he got Scriabin's languid Poeme (Op.32 No.1), a solo while the singers took a breather, spot on.


The final Mundane Theme was anything but mundane. Instead both singers took turns celebrating the worldly pleasures of Poulenc's Les chemins de l'amour (a waltz-song), Weill's Youkali (a tango-song), Richard's Strauss' blissful Morgen! (a wedding night creation) and William Bolcom's cabaret classic Amor. Their duet, Noel Coward's I'll See You Again and encore, Lehmann's There Are Fairies At The Bottom Of My Garden, completed the evening's delights.



Wednesday, 3 August 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, August 2016)



SCARLATTI 18 Sonatas
YEVGENY SUDBIN, Piano
BIS 2138 / *****

The Russia-born London-based pianist Yevgeny Sudbin made his big first splash in 2005 with a debut recording of keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1885-1757) that garnered rave reviews. 

He comes full circle with a latest recording of 18 more sonatas by the Italian composer who was domiciled in Madrid as the personal keyboard teacher of the Queen of Spain. Most of his 555 or so sonatas were originally conceived for harpsichord but Sudbin regards these as transcriptions when heard on the modern piano.

He takes great liberties in creating new sonorities and textures, by adding octaves, harmonies and sometimes altering the registers of certain voices. All this makes for a refreshingly different listen, even if purists may baulk at the excesses. 

There are five sonatas in the key of D minor alone, and all of these sparkle like multi-faceted gems. The famous “Pastoral” (D.9) is taken at a brisk clip, while the “Aria” (K.32) benefits from harmonic augmentation at its repeat. The little known K.417 is a fugal study that J.S.Bach would have been proud of, while the virtuosic “Guitar” (K.141) revels in repetitive strumming and orchestral effects. Here is a most invigorating release.       



VISIONS
CHRISTINA & 
MICHELLE NAUGHTON, Two Pianos
Warner Classics 0825646011360 / ****1/2

One might not expect such a glamorous cover design for a disc of music by 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), but this recording is more about the Naughton twins, Christina and Michelle, who are the modern American counterpart of the celebrated Labeque sisters. 

The main work is Messiaen's Visions De L'Amen (1943), a massive seven-movement work which plays for almost 45 minutes, pondering on the spiritual, terrestrial and celestial aspects of being from his devout Roman Catholic perspective.

Far from being too abstract, each movement which is an “Amen” reflects on a different act of joy, from massive chords representing the creation, the kinetic energy of stars and revolving planets, the excitable fluttering of angels and birdsong, all through to the ecstatic carillons of final consummation. 

This love-in continues by way of a simple Bach chorale (from the cantata Actus Tragicus) to the three movements of American minimalist John Adams' Hallelujah Junction (1996), also infectiously driven pieces. One can scarcely find a better ambassador for these highly charged works than the Naughtons, who perform with sympathy, conviction and no little virtuosity.    
      

Monday, 1 August 2016

BEST OF CHINESE VIRTUOSOS / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review



BEST OF CHINESE VIRTUOSOS
Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (30 July 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 August 2016 with the title "Virtuosity celebrated". 

The title of Singapore Chinese Orchestra's latest programme seems to imply the prowess of its guest soloists, who are justly celebrated in China. It also applies to composers of the works performed, two of whom were present at the concert conducted by Yeh Tsung which was digitally streamed live to  a worldwide audience.


The first was Luo Mai Shuo, whose Prince Yin Zhen's Paintings Of The Fair Lady was a suite in four movements inspired by twelve paintings of Qing dynasty empress Na La Shi, a classical beauty. Each movement comprised three portraits, each illustrating courtly activities undertaken by the royal.


Luo's sumptuous orchestration relied on instrumental colour and the use of cellos and basses, essentially Western instruments. The result resembled film music, the kind which Occidental composers employ to evoke the exotic Orient. This was however no pastiche, but cleverly crafted mood music to accompany the imagery of domesticated Manchus.


Dizi soloist Dai Ya then displayed a veritable arsenal of techniques and devices in Hao Wi Ya's Flowers Blooming On The Paths In The Fields. His was not the dainty timbre of pretty gentility, but a full throated variety which encompassed nuances and colours scarcely thought possible.


A slow and meditative introduction soon gave way to an animated dance that barring solo cadenzas for rhetoric's sake got progressively faster to a breathless conclusion. His no-holds-barred virtuosity also lent the nostalgic feel of antiquity. One imagines a Chinese version of the late great Jean-Pierre Rampal in his heyday. 


The other soloist guest was huqin exponent Jiang Ke Mei who played on three instruments in rising order of pitch. On erhu, she delivered Zhao Ji Ping's Love, the 3rd movement from Qiao's Grand Courtyard, a slow romance that built up to a festive high before receding to calmness. For Liu Yuan's arrangement of Hebei opera tune Hua Bang Zi, the shriller banhu held court with an authority that was totally commanding.


The highest pitched huqin was the diminutive jinghu, with a theatrical voice that mimicked the Beijing opera denizens in Wu Hua's arrangement of Night Thoughts, a scene from the popular Farewell My Concubine. Its big tune was carried in spectacular fashion, and all that was missing were the outlandish costumes and make-up.

Also making his appearance on the evening was Liu Chang Yuan, whose 2011 composition Hope Of The Future closed the concert. Here was an unabashed programmatic work in 6 connected sections that celebrated the centenary of the Chinese republic. The work portrayed revolution, war, sacrifice and heroism in typically percussive and poignant fashion. What Shostakovich could muster in his symphonies, Liu would outdo the Soviet on the occasion.

The sad melody first heard on low dizi in the 3rd section Tears, accompanied by a chorus of weeping flutes, was transformed into a celebratory paean in a galloping finale. Whether that was glorifying nationalism, socialism, pluralism or capitalism, it was difficult to say.


Maestro Yeh Tsung acknowledging
the composers who had come from afar.

SSO CONCERT: A NIGHT ON BROADWAY / Review



A NIGHT ON BROADWAY
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (29 July 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 August 2016 with the title "Brilliant night on Broadway".

Several years ago, an idea was mooted that a professional pops orchestra be formed in Singapore to cater to popular tastes in music-making and concert-going. That vision has not come to fruition, but many local groups – professional and amateur – have taken to producing pops concerts of late. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has also joined the band wagon, but with a big difference: it has the best instrumental soloists playing in its ranks.


Thus SSO Associate Conductor Joshua Tan took pains to name the key musicians during the course of this pops concert that centred around Broadway musicals. The guest soloist was local jazz singer Rani Singam in her SSO debut, and she took some time to warm up to the backing of a 90-piece band.

Her opening number was reliving Eliza Doolittle (with Audrey Hepburn and the late Marni Nixon) in I Could Have Danced All Night from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. Sound amplification helped highlight her diction and enunciation, which were excellent, besides allowing some of her simple elaborations to be better heard. On The Street Where You Live was a man's song, and a tenor's voice would have been preferable here.


From Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound Of Music, My Favourite Things took on a personal and local touch as Singam managed to sneak in “roti prata” amongst whiskers on kittens and warm woollen mittens. By the time she reached Fantine's tear-jerker, I Dreamed A Dream from Schonberg and Boublil's Les Miserables, one of the evening's more poignant songs, she had more than warmed up.


In between vocal numbers, the orchestra played short overtures and medleys, the longest of which was Gershwin In Hollywood, arranged by Robert Russell Bennett, which included songs A Foggy Day, Love Walked In, Nice Work If You Can Get It and Love Is Here To Stay. In Bernstein's rumbling West Side Story Overture, the shout of “Mambo!” from the orchestra was tepid at best, and perhaps the audience be enlisted to make it sound like everyone meant it the next time around.

In the second half, Singam came into her own in Gershwin's 'S Wonderful from Funny Face,  including some ad-libbing in between and the soaring Someone To Watch Over Me from Oh, Kay! For these, she received even greater applause. Arguably even better were her versions of Somewhere and Tonight from West Side Story, which she hailed as her all-time favourite musical.


The high register needed for Maria's song Somewhere was easily overcome for the spine-tingling moments in a genuinely moving performance. In Tony's ecstatic Tonight, gender became immaterial as only attitude mattered, and Singam had heaps of it. The ghosts of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras in Bernstein's own recording were more than truly exorcised. 

The encore, Over The Rainbow from Harold Arlen's The Wizard Of Oz, a perfect mix of emoting and control was the icing of the cake. Even after two hours, one was sorry that it all had to end sometime.


Wednesday, 27 July 2016

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, July 2016)



ENCORES
DENIS MATSUEV, Piano
Sony Music  88875189262 / *****

Everybody loves encores, those tasty little morsels of music performed at the end of a formal programme in concert, or recital in the case of soloists. Often spontaneous and unannounced, these come as delightful surprises, which sweeten the deal and sends everyone home happy. Russian virtuoso Denis Matsuev has more than several up his sleeve, and his anthology has a decidedly Slavic slant.

Those who attended his concert with the London Symphony Orchestra at Esplanade in 2014 will remember Anatol Liadov's delicate Musical Snuffbox, contrasted with the Grigory Ginzburg's manically charged transcription of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt.

Those were the “easier” ones, compared with Vladimir Horowitz's Carmen Variations or Rossini's Largo al factotum from The Barber of Seville (Ginzburg again). Of a less frenzied variety are a selection from Tchaikovsky's The Seasons (the popular Barcarolle and Autumn Song among these) Rachmaninov's Préludes and Études-Tableaux. A true rarity is Rachmaninov's extroverted Fugue in D minor, written as a teenager. 

In Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, Matsuev elects to play his own cadenza, a jazz improvisation in the truest sense, after which one will leap from the seat and shout “Bravo!”   




TANGO IN BLUE
Barcelona and Catalonia Symphony / Jose Serebrier
BIS 1175 / *****

Whoever would have thought that the sultry tango, once the dance of bordellos, would some day be elevated to that of a concert hall classic? It took several decades and the efforts of one Argentine Astor Piazzolla to bring that kind of respectability. 

He gets pride of place with the popular Oblivion and Tangazo, this anthology's longest piece, which builds from Bachian slow boil to toe-tapping rhythmic climax. Uruguay-born conductor Jose Serebrier, also a composer of repute, adds his own Tango in Blue and Casi un Tango with cor anglais solo, both receiving World Premiere recordings.

Serebrier's wife soprano Carole Farley joins in with Kurt Weill's Matrosen-Tango (Sailor's Song) from Happy End and the tango-habanera Youkali, which ooze sensual appeal on every turn. There are also contributions to the form by Igor Stravinsky, Samuel Barber, Erik Satie and Morton Gould, all of which are very different in many ways. 

Danish composer Jacob Gade's Tango Jalousie is an acknowledged classic and the album closes with Gerardo Matos Rodriguez's La Cumparsita. The Symphony Orchestra of Barcelona and Catalonia have this elusive idiom in their blood, and the flavour is infectious.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

SSO CONCERT: ROMEO AND JULIET. RACHMANINOV' CONCERTO NO.2 / Review



ROMEO AND JULIET.
RACHMANINOV PIANO CONCERTO NO.2
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Saturday (23 July 2016)

The last time veteran Russian pianist Dmitri Alexeev played the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra several years ago, I thought he sounded tired, and tired or even bored of the oft-performed warhorse. This time around, I am happy to report that some sort of rejuvenation had taken place.  


Not only did he sound more energised, there seemed to be more of an effort to make the piano sound out above the orchestral throng. The solo opening chords were taken at a true Moderato, as indicated by the composer and as the orchestra launched into the 1st movement's big melody, Alexeev made sure that every note of his – even if it was accompaniment to one of Rachmaninov's most melancholic tunes – was clearly heard. We know he can barnstorm like the best of young pianists, but it is his discretion and restraint in less frenzied parts -  a true test of nobility -  that stood out. The horn solo after the chordal climax from Jamie Hersch was perfectly controlled, and that added to the classiness of the performance.

In the slow movement, Evgueni Brokmiller's flute and Li Xin's clarinet were excellent, setting the mood for the piano's wallow that built up to an ecstatic high culminating with Alexeev's cadenza that stretched the full length of the keyboard. The resultant big string tune at the end, accompanied by the piano's right hand chords and left hand arpeggios capped the movement's love music. If this entire episode is not about the act of love-making set to music, then I do not know anything about music.

The finale had a bit of the rough and ready, but that did not diminish the excitement of more big tunes and more big climaxes which both pianist and orchestra did well to sustain to its spectacular end. Alexeev's little encore was a welcome break from the virtuosic fare, a Chopinesque mazurka in F minor.

The rest of the concert comprised music by Berlioz on this year's Shakespeare theme. Conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, the SSO opened with the Overture to Beatrice et Benedict, showcasing a very refined string sound that revelled in the high registers, the sort one does not get to hear too often. This delicacy of playing continued into the second half's orchestral excerpts from the symphonie lyrique Romeo et Juliette.  The supposedly impossible-to-play (in Berlioz's time) Queen Mab Scherzo was made to sound easy by the orchestra, with excellent winds gliding over the most luscious string textures thought possible.

The Love Scene, with shades of dissonances that look forward to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, was also beautifully judged, building to yearning climaxes (but not of Rachmaninov's orgasmic variety) with little exertion or effort. Tortelier conducted the entire second half from memory, and the Festival Music of the Capulets, now with the brass joining in full voice, closed the concert on a high. This evening's fare showed that the orchestra was totally capable of playing with restraint, tonal variety and colour, and that is something to be proud of.