Wednesday, 4 December 2019

CHRISTMAS CONCERT / Ensemble de la Belle Musique / Review

Ensemble de la Belle Musique
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (1 December 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 December 2019 with the title "Ensemble de la Belle Musique's lively festive works".

Which group devoted to new music in Singapore consistently sells out for its concerts? That would be Ensemble de la Belle Musique (EBM), a chamber outfit devoted to discovering and performing new compositions that are tonal and tuneful.

Serialism and atonality are passé, and it takes talent to write a good melody. That was the take-home message of EBM’s third Christmas concert in three years. This evening, the 19-member ensemble conducted by Leonard Tan showcased ten world premieres of works built around the festive theme.

Opening the concert was This Way, Santa! by young Hong Kong composer William So. Like many of the other works, the seasonal feeling of happy anticipation was created by smartly using vibraphone chimes with woodwind and brass chorales. With the piano also playing a prominent part, a warm and fuzzy sensation of wellness was soon established.

Similarly, Snow Song by Dexter Yeo (Australia) also had the feel of wondrous film music, blending strings and winds harmoniously. Scored for wind quintet, Snowflake Waltz by Dmitry Stepanov (Russia) playfully depicted swirls of falling snow in his homeland, known for its short winter daylight hours.

Still on the subject of precipitation, Snowfall by Lynn Blake John (USA) was a most friendly impression of a blizzard thought possible. While brass heralded inclement weather ahead, strings created a frisson of chill that did not last too long. In contrast, Through Pines & Snow by Dave Dexter (UK) exhibited darker shades, coloured with a sobriety and melancholy that did not seem out of place.

Despite its rather formal title, Concerto for Viola and String Quintet by Darren Wirth (USA) was more like a scherzo movement from a larger work. Violist Jonathan Lee mastered its tricky solo part with the aplomb and energy that reflected the music’s joy and excitement. Also highly animated was Christmas Mischief With The Nisse by Kari Cruver Medina (USA), with the bassoon leading an impish dance of a Scandinavian elf that resembles a mini Santa Claus.

What about the three Singaporean composers represented in this concert? Low Shao Suan’s Sonatina Festivo was a three-movement work for flute and piano, with Andy Koh helming the virtuoso solo part that include lively dances and a slow movement reminiscent of Harry Potter movie music. A Christmas Lullaby by Yvonne Teo was an enchanting look at Christmas night after the celebrations have ended and champagne bottles emptied. Only a choir was missing in this wistful fantasy.   

The work this pair of ears most liked to hear again was by the youngest composer of the ten, Lim Han Quan. His Christmas Prayer for just strings unfolded like some adagio movement from a Mahler or Bruckner symphony. Simply put, his was a sound world that was ethereal and otherworldly, imbued with a spiritual heft to move mountains.  

Monday, 2 December 2019

DUO SENSES: HARP & PIANO / Laura Peh & Azariah Tan / Review

LAURA PEH Harp Recital
AZARIAH TAN Piano Recital
Esplanade Recital Studio
Friday & Saturday 
(29 & 30 November 2019) 

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 December 2019 with the title "Home-grown talents shine in harp and piano recitals". 

Kris Foundation has been presenting young Singaporean musical talents in recitals over the last decade, and this year’s two soloists were distinctive in different ways. In 2013, Laura Peh was established as the first Singaporean to perform a solo harp recital, while Azariah Tan became Singapore’s first hearing-impaired concert pianist.

Peh’s recital was a showcase of mostly French virtuoso pieces representing the “Golden Age of the Harp”. Opening with the etude-like Au matin (In The Morning) by Marcel Tournier, its sunlit pages radiated a warm glow and ethereal aura. Her art was the pursuit of gentle scintillation, with the 1st movement from same composer’s Sonatine sounding just as persuasive, a heady reminder of the Belle Epoque.

Harp-fanciers will also recognise the names of Gabriel Pierne, Felix Godefroid and Elias Parish-Alvars, the latter two being hailed as the Paganini and Liszt of the harp. Despite being finger-twisters, their pieces also evoked the lyricism of bel canto and Chopin. Scarlatti’s Sonata in B minor and Debussy’s Clair de lune (from Suite Bergamasque) were originally conceived for the harpsichord and piano respectively, but these translated well on the harp too.

Artist & Composer:
Laura Peh with Lim Kang Ning

Also significant was the world premiere of young Singaporean composer Lim Kang Ning’s Cornish Tides, evocative and impressionist picture postcards of the wind-swept Cornwall landscape. The first movement was redolent of Debussy, with whole-tones sprinkled liberally, while the second was a whimsical scherzo which playfully involved rhythmic tapping of the harp’s wooden frame.

Pianist Azariah Tan’s programme comprised just two works, Beethoven’s Sonata No.30 in E major (Op.109) coupled with Johann Sebastian Bach’s mighty Goldberg Variations. This tandem worked a treat because of related thematic material, which Tan eloquently explained and demonstrated pre-performance.

Both works were regarded as spiritual journeys, with their requisite ups and downs. Opening quietly and closing in serenity, there was to be much activity and angst encompassed in between. The late Beethoven sonata received a supremely musical reading, culminating in the final movement’s set of variations on a hymn-like theme.

The descending bass notes to an aria was the subject of Bach’s fantastic variations, which comprised 30 in total but laid out as ten groups of three. As Tan explained, every three variations included a dance, a technically demanding study and a canon. His performance was highly assured and clear-headed as his preamble, and shorn of idiosyncracy or stylistic quirks.

As he chose to omit all repeats, the work clocked in just under 45 minutes, in effect a breeze. When the closing Aria breathed its last, a journey of transformation was complete. For most, that would  have been total satisfaction in itself, but Tan shared two lovely encores. A Chopin Prélude (Op.28 No.17) and an unpublished song by late Canadian pianist Vernon Duncombe were the extra treats.

Artist & Benefactor:
Azariah Tan with Kris Tan,
Founder of Kris Foundation.

Monday, 18 November 2019

LOVE, POULENC / 9th Singapore Lieder Festival / Review

9th Singapore Lieder Festival
Victoria Concert Hall Music Studio
Last Friday & Saturday (15 & 16 November 2019)
Chang Tou Liang

2019 marked the ninth edition of the Singapore Lieder Festival, organised by the Sing Song Club founded by tenor Adrian Poon and pianist Shane Thio. Over the years, the group performed over a thousand art songs, encompassing great German lieder cycles, English folksongs, French chansons and premieres of songs by Singaporean composers.

This year’s offering was a distillation of the 2013 festival, which showcased the complete melodies of French composer Francis Poulenc (1899 to 1963). In two short but intense recitals last weekend, three singers and the indefatigable accompanist Thio reprised some of the key song cycles. Given Poulenc’s penchant for melancholy, humour, irony and luscious tunes, that seemed irresistible.

The first evening opened with soprano Teng Xiang Ting in Poems of Louis Aragon, two widely contrasting songs dripping with socialist notions. Beautiful lyrical lines distinguished C (I Have Crossed The Bridges Of Cé) while her finely articulated French surmounted the tricky Fetes Galantes. While making her name as an operatic diva, Teng showed she was equally adroit as an art song interpreter.

Busier of two singers, she also sang Fiancailles pour rire (Light-hearted Betrothal) and La Courte Paille (The Short Straw), comprising some 12 songs. If there were a composer able to cram multiple layers of emotions and nuances into diminutive musical bon mots, that would be Poulenc. Make no mistake about the seemingly simple words and settings, as hidden meanings and entendres abound.

Tenor Adrian Poon sang in both evenings. The five songs in Banalites (Banalities), Poulenc’s most familiar cycle, received vivid characterisations. Smoky decadence in Hotel, the tipsy waltz-song in Voyage a Paris and moving plaints of Sanglots (Sobs), highlighting mercurial shifts of moods, were easily taken in his stride.

A minor controversy involved a male voice singing La Dame de Monte-Carlo - Poulenc’s longest song - about an ageing madame’s desperate plight, casting her last hopeless die in the gambling table of life. No worries. Considering Poon’s cross-dressing act in New Opera Singapore’s recent production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this was par for the course.    

On the second evening, Poon tackled Tel Jours Telle Nuit (As The Day So The Night) and Calligrammes, 16 songs in all. These were darker and more aphoristic, with the piano part more pointillist and fraught. The former was a kaleidoscopic metaphorical journey from day to night, encompassing all shades in between, while the latter was inspired by war and personal loss.

The third singer, baritone Daniel Fong, covered the songs on animals and artists. Le bestiaire (The Book Of Beasts) included curiosities like a camel, Tibetan goat, grasshopper and crayfish, all under a minute long. More substantial was Le travail du peintre (The Work of the Painter) where Poulenc’s artist friends were portrayed in vignettes – Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Gris, Klee, Miro and the little-known Jacques Villon. The last provided a most noble of endings, a touch that was simply Poulenc.

Friday, 15 November 2019

SHLOMO MINTZ Chamber Recital / Review

SHLOMO MINTZ Chamber Recital
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Wednesday (13 November 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 November 2019 with the title "Unusual musical choices lead to patchy performance".

Russia-born Israeli violinist Shlomo Mintz is the Ong Teng Cheong Professor in Music for Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in the 2019/20 academic year. Also Distinguished Artist-in-Residence in last year’s Singapore International Violin Competition when he performed all six Eugene Ysaye unaccompanied Sonatas, his showcase this year was a chamber recital with faculty members of the Conservatory.

Unusually, the recital opened with Mintz on the viola, in two works which were not conceived for the instrument. The first was Schubert’s popular Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, originally written for the arpeggione, an obsolete six-stringed bowed instrument with frets. Nowadays, it is always heard played on the cello.  

Neither as deep nor mellow as the cello, the viola would struggle in comparison. Nevertheless Mintz maintained a firm and throaty singing tone throughout its Biedermeier gentility. However the tempos adopted by him and accompanying pianist Ge Xiaozhe in the opening movement were so broad that there seemed little differentiation in dynamics continuing into the actual slow movement.

Leisurely to some, and draggy to others, life seemed to be sucked out of the music. Moving from the early Romantic to the late Romantic, Brahms’ Viola Sonata in E flat major (Op.120 No.2, originally for the clarinet), there gained some semblance of vitality, not least in the central Allegro Appassionato movement. With fire in the belly, much credit went to Ge’s rock-steady partnership which did not stint on keyboard vigour.

Lighter music occupied the recital’s second half, now with Mintz playing the violin. Darius Milhaud’s surrealist ballet Le boeuf sur le toit, crafted as a cinema-fantasy for violin and piano, was a weird choice. The music was inspired by Brazilian dance rhythms, ragtime, cabaret and popular music hall idioms. Also throw in the Frenchman’s experiments with polytonality, meaning the instruments often played in different keys.

This sounded like some disaster, with excruciating off-pitch and approximate playing which became increasingly embarrassing by the minute. Perhaps all that was deliberate, given that the work’s absurdist title, named after an actual 1920s Parisian nightclub, means “ox on the roof”.   

Thankfully there was Astor Piazzolla’s tango suite The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires to save the day. Here Mintz was partnered with members from the Conservatory, namely Qian Zhou and He Shucong (violins), Zhang Manchin (viola), Ng Pei-Sian (cello) and Guennadi Mouzyka (double bass). They performed a string sextet arrangement by Fabian Bertero, which is shorter and less florid than the more often heard Leonid Desyatnikov version.

Here was a collective letting down of hair, with the infectiously rhythmic music being the tonic for the evening’s mixed fare. Mintz also seemed more in his element, wallowing in the high spirits and bittersweet asides. Opening with celebratory Summer and closing with vibrant Spring, the performance was loudly and rapturously received, with fugal Winter being encored to even more cheers.  

Monday, 4 November 2019

ALEXANDER MALOFEEV Piano Recital / Review

Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday (2 November 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 November 2019 with the title "Pianist shows brilliance at Singapore debut".

Eighteen-year-old Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev is already a celebrity. Thanks to Youtube and social media, the former child prodigy who won the Tchaikovsky International Youth Piano Competition at the age of 13 has now a universal following. His Singapore debut recital was thus greeted with a large audience in Victoria Concert Hall, which he reciprocated with a programme of unabashed virtuosity.

Some might quibble about the absence of works by Mozart, Schubert or Chopin, which favour discretion and musicianship over outlandish display, but this lanky young man has a seemingly effortless facility and enviable technique to burn. He displayed little emotion on his face and was economical in motion. Yet he is no off-the-assembly-line automaton with steel-tipped fingers.

In Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata (Op.57), he allied brawn with brain in a performance of requisite brilliance. Even if the opening movement had a poker face about it, the slow movement’s variations were unfurled with no little patience and good judgement. Fetters were let loose for the finale, and there was little time to catch one’s breath for Malofeev’s thunderous and whirlwind response.

Arguably even more impressive was the reading of Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata (Op.36), heard in its shorter 1931 edition. Common fodder for piano competitions, the work found a sympathetic ear in Malofeev who resonated its myriad bell sounds with much trenchancy. He even tried teasing out hidden inner voices in the lyrical central movement, but it was the mastery of massed notes in high speeds that eventually stood out.

The recital’s second half was all Russian, and that suited him to the tee. Tchaikovsky’s Dumka mixed Slavic doom and melancholy with the boisterousness of a country dance. That was merely a warm up to Balakirev’s fearsome Islamey, an Oriental fantasy where more speed records were broken. The clarity and accuracy of his delivery was nothing short of astounding.

To calm things down, the Andante Maestoso from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker in Mikhail Pletnev’s exacting transcription was the lyrical icing on a well-baked cake. And make no mistake about it, this was not an easy piece to overcome.

Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, the middle instalment of his “War Trilogy”, completed the evening’s programme. Again, this was no faceless shock and awe performance, but a well-nuanced one which balanced jagged dissonances with unusually lyrical asides. Being able to differentiate when to apply extreme percussiveness and when to sing made this a highly satisfying outing. Even the precipitous final movement opened quietly but gradually worked itself to a frenzied chord-laden conclusion.  

There were two encores. Tchaikovsky’s Autumn Song (October) from The Seasons was touching for its sheer simplicity and song-like lines. In contrast, the rapid machine-gun fire of Prokofiev’s Toccata did exactly what it was supposed to do, that is triggering an spontaneous standing ovation.

Alexander Malofeev is greeted by
Russian ambassador to Singapore
H.E. Mr Andrey Tatarinov.

CHOPIN - BEYOND & BEYOND / Albert Tiu Piano Recital / Review

Albert Tiu, Piano
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Thursday 31 October 2019

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 November 2019 with the title "Chopin celebrated".

Recitals of Frederic Chopin’s piano music are usually predictable; a pair of Nocturnes, a clutch of Études and Préludes, a Ballade or Scherzo to impress, capped by the indestructible Second or Third Sonatas. Not so for Singapore-based Filipino pianist Albert Tiu, who presented an adventurous and varied programme of mostly short pieces built around the cult of the Polish pianist-composer.

There were 21 works by 12 composers, grouped in five suites, showcasing a wide breadth and depth of influence, not to mention Tiu’s understated virtuosity and unfailing musicality. Who was Chopin, and who were his forebears? One clue lay in the opening number, the Fugue in F minor (from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1) by Johann Sebastian Bach, possessed with a chromaticism way ahead of his time.

The first suite, cast entirely in the morose key of F minor, also included the first of Chopin’s Trois Nouvelles Études and a most sinuous of Études (Op.25 No.2) which revealed a mastery of the right hand. Grieg’s little-known Hommage à Chopin and Liszt’s tortuously tricky La Leggierezza completed the set with no little aplomb.

The lyricism of bel canto was the next influence, with three Nocturnes in E flat major. The first was by Irishman John Field, inventor of the “night piece”, its simplicity then surpassed by Chopin’s familiar warhorse (Op.9 No.2), now dressed up in filigree by Chopin student Mikuli and Tiu himself. More extended was Frenchman Gabriel Fauré’s Fourth Nocturne (Op.36), an essay of sumptuous beauty that furthered the genre.

The third suite comprised five waltzes, all in F minor again. Chopin was the lynchpin, his lilting exercise followed by Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Debussy and Leopold Godowsky. The last was a later Polish pianist-composer paying tribute to the master, by craftily fashioning an earlier-heard Étude into a grand polyphonic waltz.

More was to come in the second half, with a trio of Venetian gondolier songs. Ironically, Mendelssohn’s piece (from his Songs Without Words) had the darkest shade of the three. This and Liszt’s Gondoliera (from Years of Pilgrimage) bookended Chopin’s late Barcarolle, arguably his greatest outpouring of love, which Tiu milked to the full.

The final suite was formed by mazurkas, the humble Polish peasant dance in three-quarter time. C sharp minor was the key, with Chopin’s Op.30 No.4 (a favourite of Ukrainian-born virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz’s) leading the way. Tchaikovsky’s hommage (Un Poco Di Chopin or A Little Chopin), Scriabin’s rhythmic gem (Op.3 No.6) and Pole Karol Szymanowski’s saucy morsel (Op.50 No.3) displayed more facets to this form, before another Chopin-Godowsky conflation ended the concert.

This final time, a Chopin Étude in E minor (Op.25 No.5) had been transformed into a grandstanding Mazurka. That the appreciative audience comprised many pianists, piano teachers, music critics (past and present), singers, rock musicians and general music-lovers spoke volumes. They all love Chopin and Albert Tiu. 

After all, its Halloween!

Thursday, 24 October 2019

CD Review (The Straits Times, October 2019)

DEBUSSY Nocturnes / Printemps etc.
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
BIS 2232 / *****

This is the final instalment of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s three-disc survey of orchestral music by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), under the direction of former Music Director Shui Lan. Having recorded major works La Mer and Three Images for Orchestra, this disc concludes with the Three Nocturnes (1897-99), which helped establish the Frenchman as a frontline composer.

Impressionist in thought and colour, Nuages (Clouds) and Fêtes (Festivals) are musical tableaux distinguished by contrasting moods which are vividly evocative. The ennui of grey skies and frenetic pace of human activity are soon effaced by the haunting finale, Sirenes (Sirens), which features wordless women’s voices from the Philharmonic Chamber Choir of Europe  

There are also two concertante works, beginning with Rapsodie (1901-11), showcasing the variegated shadings of superb French saxophonist Claude Delangle, reminding one of the sinuous opening to the famous Prelude to The Afternoon Of The Fawn. The beautiful Two Dances (1904, Danse sacré et Danse profane) are graced by SSO principal harpist Gulnara Mashurova, who brilliantly brings out their alternatingly formal and sensuous faces, backed by just strings.

This interesting album is completed by various lesser-known odds and ends, the Scottish March On A Popular Theme (1890), Berceuse Heroique (1914), which quotes La Brabançonne, the Belgian national anthem, and the early Printemps (1887, orchestrated by Henri Busser), a reminder of the French Belle Epoque. SSO is served with spectacular sound, and the ecologically friendly packaging (with no plastic) does its part to save the planet. 

With this review, I conclude my fortnitely/weekly column of CD reviews for The Straits Times which began 22 years ago in 1997. There have been a total of 1186 CD reviews in total since the very first one (Paul McCartney's Standing Stone on EMI Classics). 

I thank The Straits Times for their faith in me, and indulging me in my musical whims and pianomaniac fancies.