Monday, 21 May 2018

THE GLORY OF THE BAROQUE / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (18 May 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 May 2018 with the title "Spirited display of Baroque music".

Local audiences may be forgiven for thinking that baroque music consisted little more than Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Handel's Messiah and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Given recent programming of Singapore Symphony Orchestra's chamber concerts at Victoria Concert Hall, that notion should soon cease. British violinist and conductor Peter Hanson, veteran of the early music movement, has been helping to spearhead this change.

The first of two baroque concerts opened with Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli's Canzon XVI, highlighting the antiphonal qualities in cathedrals where his works were performed. The ensemble was split into three distinct string groups, widely spaced apart, and the effect was no less than gorgeously sonorous. 

Heinrich Ignaz Biber's Battaglia was an early form of programme music, depicting scenes of vivid battle which looked forward to potboilers like Beethoven's Wellington's Victory and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Nine string players were all that was needed to churn up a cacophony of marches, drums and fifes, musket and cannon shots by means of violent pizzicatos, the likes of which 20th century modernist Bartok would have been proud of.  

Cast in G minor were Alessandro Stradella's Overture to La Forza Delle Stelle and Henry Purcell's well-known Chacony. The former began with a serious introduction followed a fugue, while the latter was an archetypal set of short variations on a ground bass. These compositional forms commonly heard in the 17th century were performed with loving care and detail. 

Handel's ubiquitous oratorio Messiah was represented by two arias from young soprano Felicia Teo. She initially had some difficulty in negotiating the dizzying runs and intonation in Rejoice Greatly, but soon settled in He Shall Feed His Flock which better revealed her mellifluous tone. Now warmed up properly, she let loose on Handel's Tornami A Vagheggiar (Return To Me To Languish) from Alcina, a display of vocal athleticism and agility that was very impressive.

The evening closed with two works that highlighted solo instruments supported by a larger group of players. Vivaldi Concerto for Two Violins in A minor (Op.3 No.8) from L'Estro Armonico placed soloists Ye Lin and Xu Jue Yi in the forefront, where their virtuosic parts were able to shine through like beacons over the accompaniment in three movements. Vivaldi was one of music's early violin virtuosos and his music reflected that kind of flair.  

A little more subtle was Handel's Concerto Grosso in G major, Op.6 No.1 where violinists Hanson and Michael Loh, and cellist Guo Hao formed the central concertino group. While less obviously virtuosic, their voices nonetheless stood out from the backing ripieno group. Its five movements were built around a central Adagio where time stood still albeit for a short while. Then, a busy fugue and lively gigue (literally a jig) in triple time closed the concert on a spirited high.

The glory and diversity of the baroque could not have been better served. 

Thursday, 17 May 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, May 2018)

BIS 2312 / *****

British cellist Steven Isserlis has another winner in this album of cello sonatas written during the First World War (1914-1918) by composers from the warring nations. The contrasts are as varied as the composers themselves. 

Two Frenchmen nearing their last years find altogether different inspirations. Claude Debussy's Cello Sonata (1915) seeks a simplicity that defined early French music, and is a gem of brevity in three movements. Gabriel Fauré's Cello Sonata No.1 (1917) has a mellowness and autumnal lyricism that could only have come from the same pen as his famous Requiem of 1890.

Between these is the longest of three sonatas, Englishman Frank Bridge's Cello Sonata (1913-1917). Its two movements are filled with passionate and sometimes violent outbursts which reflect the brutal futility of war. Austrian composer Anton Webern's Three Little Pieces (1914) were chosen as the antithesis. Atonal and aphoristic, these play for just 9, 13 and 10 bars each, barely lasting 3 minutes in total. 

The recital concludes with four short pieces played on a “trench cello” (a compact self-assembled instrument housed within a rectangular case the size of an ammunition box) once owned by war veteran Harold Triggs who carried and played it on the fields of Ypres. 

Its limpid and glassy tone brings a poignancy to Saint-Saëns' The Swan, Hubert Parry's Jerusalem, Ivor Novello's Keep The Home-Fires Burning and God Save The King, which has to be heard to be believed. Isserlis and Canadian pianist Connie Shih serve up an aural treat in this excellent themed recital.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, May 2018)

with Orfeo 55
Erato 0190295765293 / *****

Whenever the subject of “aria antiche” comes up, one invariably thinks of old Italian songs in singing lessons watched over by crusty teachers of a didactic bent. 

French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann completely dispels that notion, breathing fresh new air to 19th century voice pedagogue Alessandro Parisotti's collections of “teaching” songs. Seeking out original contexts of 17 such songs, some from operas, cantatas and others as stand-alone arias, the results are breathtaking.

In Francesco Conti's cantata Doppo tante e tante pene (After So Much Suffering), from which the titular aria Quella Fiamma (The Fire That Burns Me) arises, and one is immediately in awe of Stutzmann's agility and outsized vocal range, especially in the low registers. Handel's Ah! Mio cor, schernito sei (Oh, My Heart, You Are Scorned) from Alcina simply sizzles from the depth of emotion displayed. Also enjoy the variety provided by composers like Scarlatti, Bononcini, Cesti, Caccini and Carissimi among others.

There are also familiar favourites: Martini's Plaisir d'Amour (Pleasures of Love, sung in French), Paisiello's Nel cor piu non mi sento (I No Longer Feel In My Heart) and Se tu m'ami (If You Love Me), once thought to be by Pergolesi, but now attributed to Parisotti himself. Purely orchestral pieces, also conducted by Stutzmann, add to the immense pleasure of this outstanding recital disc.

Monday, 7 May 2018

KAVAKOS PLAYS SHOSTAKOVICH / Singapore Symphony Orchestra Gala / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (5 May 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times with the title "SSO again displays mastery in Russian music".

The last gala concert in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's 2017-18 season was an all-Russian programme conducted by Shui Lan. The orchestra has had a long love affair with Russian music since its early years under Choo Hoey, and this concert was another demonstration of its mastery in this repertoire.

The atmospheric Prelude to Mussorgsky's unfinished opera Khovanshchina, also called Dawn On The Moscow River, provided an excellent start. Over the hushed tones of violas, Evgueni Brokmiller's flute and Li Xin's clarinet sung a folkloric melody, immediately conjuring an air of melancholy that typified the Russian spirit. A quartet of French horns relived the peal of distant church bells, raising the spectre of Mussorgsky's greatest opera Boris Godunov, but a still calm returned as this mini-epic drew to a quiet close.

While Mussorgsky was Russia's musical conscience in the 19th century, and his modern-day counterpart was Shostakovich, whose First Violin Concerto in A minor has become one of the most performed of 20th century violin concertos. Its first performance had to be suppressed until after Stalin's death. It was thought that music posed dangerous ideas, including promoting dissonance, dissent and defeatism, all taboo in the totalitarian Soviet Union.

These were laid bare in Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos' blistering performance. From the darkest of orchestral openings, Kavakos' crystalline tone shone like shafts of clear moonlight through murky clouds in the 1st movement's Nocturne. Here the night was synonymous with bleakness and unease, in particular the fear and dread of that knock on the door after midnight.

Shostakovich lived a life of chronic gloom, and even if his music sometimes appeared cheerful, it was invariably dripping with vitriol. Kavakos' searing and lancinating solo led the way in the Scherzo, which highlighted the bassoon for comic relief and also quoted the composer's own initials DSCH (D-E flat-C-B natural) as a personal stamp.

The 3rd movement's moving Passacaglia and the final Klezmer-charged Burlesque was not just about Kavakos' astounding and free-wheeling virtuosity, but also how well Shui and his orchestra responded to its enormous challenges in partnership. Shouts of bravo were silenced by Kavakos' antithetical encore, a lightly ornamented reading of the Sarabande from J.S.Bach's Partita No.2.

Tchaikovsky's First Symphony in G minor, or “Winter Daydreams”, closed the evening on yet another high. Although one of his less popular symphonies, it is still filled with his trademarks – sumptuous melodies, bracing climaxes and an underlying neurosis. All of these surfaced in the 1st movement, which was a constant battle between tension and relaxation.

An aural lusciousness shone through in the slow movement, with muted strings matched by exquisite solos from oboe, flute and bassoon. Bringing to mind some of Tchaikovsky's best ballet music, this and the 3rd movement's Scherzo also featured the best playing. The finale's success was all about building up to a terrific climax, and this was delivered with absolute panache.


Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (4 May 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 May 2018 with the title "Enlightening performance led by director's clear vision".

Singapore's premier professional chamber ensemble, re:Sound, continues to grow from strength to strength. One of its secrets is to work with a different leader/director every concert, and the results are fresh and different each time. Its latest guest director was the Ukrainian-British violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, well-known for his work with renowned period instrument ensembles like the Academy of Ancient Music, New London Consort and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Enlighten the audience he did in a programme of mostly 18th century music, familiar and obscure. How often has one heard a Handel concerto grosso here in a live performance? Exactly. In Handel's G major Concerto Grosso (Op.6 No.1), he led the 13-member string group from his violin, and the sound was sleek and transparent through its five short movements.

Although the players do not perform on antique instruments, it was the approach by Beznosiuk which relived the spirit of the baroque. Vibrato was minimised, textures were light, but not light-weight and tempos lively, rather than merely fast. That each movement swung like a dance was the intention, and the overall results were impressive.

Also rarely heard was Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major, a curious hybrid between symphony and concerto that was once a popular compositional form. Even more curious was the combination of solo instruments employed, including violin (Beznosiuk), cello (Robert Choi), oboe (Tay Kai Tze) and bassoon (Zhang Jin Min).

The 1st movement's martial air was provided by the orchestra's two trumpets, two French horns and timpani, but the quartet of soloists held its own with delightful interplay and a showy cadenza. The slow movement opened with violin and bassoon in conversation, a testament to Haydn's ingenuity and the finale's humour bubbled over. There was a passage where solo cello echoed the solo violin, as if saying “whatever you can do, I can do just as well”. 

The concert's second half was dedicated to Beethoven's Second Symphony in D major of 1802, an early work with the German beginning to overflex his creative muscles. Now seated, Beznosiuk still towered over his charges with his clearly defined directions dominating the performance. The opening notes were emphatic, and the slow introduction deliberately building into something special.

When the Allegro finally came, it was with a joyous surge of energy. Here was the true meaning of brio, a vitality that is natural and never forced. By contrast, the slow movement was graceful, chirping woodwinds singing over elegant svelte strings. The ensuing Scherzo hinted at a joke, but with Beethoven this meant providing surprises for the listener, such as catchy three-note phrases and springing unexpected changes in rhythm and dynamics.

Similarly, the finale was delivered with ebullience, with more humour shining through. The encore gave a clue to Beethoven's inspiration, the animated Minuet movement from Haydn's last symphony (No.104, also in D major). Can one hope for more of the same from Beznosiuk's next re:Sound concert?     

Thursday, 3 May 2018


The 24 pianists selected to perform in the Second Round of the Leeds International Piano Competition 2018 were named on 1 May 2018. They are:

Jean-Selim Abdelmoula (Switzerland)
Evelyne Berezovsky (UK)
Florian Caroubi (France)
Sae Yoon Chon (South Korea)
Anna Geniushene (Russia)
Salih Can Gevrek (Turkey)
Yilei Hao (China)*
Mario Häring (Germany)
Wei-Ting Hsieh (Taiwan)*
Fuko Ishii (Japan)
Aljosa Jurinic (Croatia)
Yoonji Kim (South Korea)
Taek Gi Lee (South Korea)*
Siqian Li (China)
Eric Lu (USA)
Alexia Mouza (Greece/Venezuela)
Jinhyung Park (South Korea)*
Samson Tsoy (Russia)
Chao Wang (China)*
Xinyuan Wang (China)
Andrzej Wiercinski (Poland)
Wu Yuchong (China)
Yuanfan Yang (UK)
Pavel Zeman (Czech Republic)

* Pianists selected from Singapore leg (First Round)

Taek Gi Lee (South Korea)
Chao Wang (China)
Jinhyung Park (South Korea)
Yilei Hao (China)
Wei-Ting Hsieh (Taiwan)

It was interesting to note that 5 of these pianists had performed their First Round in Singapore, at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music on 8 April 2018. Playing within a field of 11 pianists, the success rate here was a staggering 45.45%. The success rates in Berlin and New York were 35% (14 out og 40) and 29.4% (5 out of 17) respectively. 

Thus those who attended the First Round were treated to a standard of playing that was more than representative of the high standards of this prestigious competition. It was a pity that the two Singapore-based pianists Clarence Lee and Kseniia Vokhmianina were not among them despite their very fine  showings. 

China will be represented by 6 pianists (including 1 from Taiwan) and South Korea by 4 pianists. There are only 2 pianists from Russia among the 24. There are 2 pianists representing the United Kingdom, and both are children of emigrés from Russia and China. The only pianist from USA is of Chinese origin. That 13 out of 24 pianists are of East Asian origin may reflect the changing demographics that is taking place in piano competitions and classical music in general. 

The Second Round takes place at Leeds from 6 September 2018, and the competition may be followed at

CD Review (The Straits Times, May 2018)

Piano Works
BIS 1848 / *****

BIS 2150 / *****

Russian piano music came to prominence in the late 19th century, fuelled by nationalism and distinguished by outsized technical virtuosity schooled in the conservatories of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. These two recordings of Russian piano music by young pianists merit serious attention.

Two pianist-composers who defined late Russian Romantic pianism, Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) and Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), receive equal billing in the Russian Yevgeny Sudbin's hour-long recital. Here Medtner's cerebral and Rachmaninov's more visceral qualities are keenly displayed. 

The former's single-movement Sonata Reminiscenza, Sonata Tragica and pithy short pieces called Skazki (Fairy Tales), heard alongside a selection of the latter's better-known Preludes (from Op.23 and 32) make for a perfect introduction to their similarities and contrasts.

Frenchman Alexandre Kantorow's all-Russian recital disc is longer and piles on more virtuoso fodder. The longest work is Rachmaninov's First Sonata, a three-movement epic inspired by the Faust legend, playing for almost 40 minutes. 

Guido Agosti's transcription of three movements from Stravinsky's ballet Firebird and Balakirev's Islamey also receive thunderous readings, tempered by the more genteel salon fare of Tchaikovsky's character pieces. A more convincing juxtaposition of musical steel and satin will be hard to find.    

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

RE:COMPOSED / re:mix with FOO SAY MING / Review

Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (29 April 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 May 2018 with the title "Sumptuous tribute to P.Ramlee".

After a hiatus of one year, the crack string ensemble re:mix led by violinist Foo Say Ming returned with a vengeance, doing what it does best: delivering nostalgia by the earful and more. Its 80-minute-long concert served up familiar music but dressed up in new garb, such that well-loved originals are viewed through lenses of many different tints.

German-British composer Max Richter found himself a hit in 2012 with The Four Seasons Recomposed, essentially Antonio Vivaldi's four most popular violin concertos brought up to speed through a quasi-minimalist update.

Without issues of copyright to worry about, all the original movements were reprised in sequence but modified by highlighting certain themes while downplaying or excising others, altering harmonies and chord progressions, switching rhythms and even throwing in a new tune or two. How Borodin's “Stranger in Paradise” melody from Prince Igor sneaked into the 3rd movement of Spring seemed a mystery.

Foo was in his element for the virtuosic solo part, which he commanded with consummate ease alongside leading his players, which included a harpsichordist and harpist for good measure. The sound they produced was sumptuous for a relatively small group. Its core members have been together for 12 years, and that definitely has something to do with it. 

Winter threw up some surprises. Its slow movement dispensed with the rhythmic accompaniment of falling snowflakes and a crackling fireplace, instead Foo's solo was backed by string harmonics, which was bleakly ethereal. And the hypnotic minimalist last movement gave the feeling of “the end of times”, a definitive sense of finality.

Arguably better was the world premiere of young local composer Julian Wong's P.Ramlee Suite, which relived nine of the Penang-born musical icon's favourite songs in three movements. The titular suite seemed almost modest by name, as it was more like a 20-minute symphony given its classical form and architecture. It was also dedicated to Wong's composition teacher Iskandar Ismail, who like Ramlee, departed way before his time.

Wong gave a most eloquent preamble, providing short sung passages in Malay which were totally idiomatic and engaging. The music that followed was no less enthralling, string sonorities multiplied manifold for spine-tingling effect, joined by percussionist Riduan Zalani with some authentic Malay drumming. The 1st movement was a concertante showpiece for Foo, quoting songs like Azizah and Jangan Tinggal Daku, while turning Malam Bulan Dipagar Bintang into a Viennese waltz. Erich Korngold's Violin Concerto, which used his Hollywood movie tunes, came to mind.

The slow movement luxuriated in Ramlee's most popular song bar none, Getaran Jiwa. With no solo to helm, Foo used both his bow and violin to direct, circumscribing wide arcs in the air. The finale, which relived Anak-ku Sazali, Senandung Malam and three other songs was in rondo form and even included a short fugue. Climaxing with a virtuosic cadenza, a standing ovation greeted the work's close. No surprises what the encore was to be: Getaran Jiwa, milked to the very last tear-drop. 

Monday, 30 April 2018

THE BUND. SWING TO JAZZ / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Saturday (28 April 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 April 2018 with the title "A heady night of jazz by a Chinese orchestra". 

Once in a while, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra led by Yeh Tsung goes out of its comfort zone to perform jazz. There was an evening of mostly Gershwin in 2013, but this year's offering felt closer to home with the Roaring Twenties in Shanghai, China's “Paris of the East”, as its theme.

A misty air hung over the hall clothed in burgundy drapes, illuminated by crystal chandeliers, to conjure the feeling of exoticism and decadence. Yeh, ever the dapper dresser, leapt on the podium to conduct Law Wai Lun's Old Shanghai, the jazzy prelude to music written to accompany the black-and-white classic movie The Goddess.

This concert of short works and classic standards showcased the talents of Chinese jazz singer Coco Zhao and trumpeter Li Xiaochuan. They were backed by the locally-based trio of pianist Chok Kerong, drummer Tamagoh and bassist Christy Smith, who all had solo moments in the spotlight. The orchestrations by Law and Eric Watson were so idiomatic as to render the so-called cultural divide a non sequitur.

Many popular Chinese songs were adapted from originals in English, including Gei Wo Yi Ge Wen (Give Me A Kiss) by Earl and Alden Shuman, which was sung first. Zhao is an entertainer who puts one immediately at ease with his satin-smooth vocals, often raising the bar with spots of ad-libbing and extemporisation. 

Never wont to over-extend himself, he left the heavy-lifting to the unassuming Li, whose musings with a muted instrument were duskily bluesy but soon rose to a full-blooded ring in the highest registers. Together, they courted and charmed the audience in Chen Ruizhen's nostalgic Huai Nian (Yearning) and Chen Gexin's very familiar Night In Shanghai.

On his own, Li lit up the stage in Glenn Miller's Moonlight Serenade and Frank Foster's Shiny Stockings, more well-loved music where the spirit of swing and big band was well captured by soloist and orchestra. In Li's own Reunion, he was joined by SCO's Tan Man Man (erhu) and Han Lei (guan) in a heady triple concerto act. For sheer intensity, the smouldering blues of Miles Davis' Flamenco Sketches in slow bolero-rhythm was a hard act to follow.

Conductor Yeh also related his own personal connections with jazz, including growing up in Shanghai, being a distant relation to Yan Hua whose Blossom Under The Full Moon was performed, and his first paid job in St.Louis, Missouri. WC Handy's St.Louis Blues was a worthy tribute, as were two Harold Arlen numbers, Over The Rainbow and Blue Skies, which Zhao lapped up ever so gratefully.

The final number was Jon Hendrick's I Want Your Love, better known in its Chinese version Wo Yao Ni De Ai, which roused an unusually boisterous audience into full participation. They had to be coaxed with two encores, What A Little Moonlight Can Do and a reprise of Give Me A Kiss, before consenting to disperse after what was a heady evening.