Thursday, 17 January 2019

CD Review (The Straits Times, January 2019)

BACH Trios
Yo-Yo Ma, Cello 
Chris Thile, Mandolin
Edgar Meyer, Bass
Nonesuch 7559-79392-0 / *****

The trio of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolinist Chris Thile and bassist Edgar Meyer make no pretensions about the authenticity of their album of music by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). All the pieces are co-written arrangements for their peculiar combination of instruments. The performances however sound unusually idiomatic, as if contemporary with the Baroque period itself.  

Ma and Thile alternate between and share the melodic lines while Meyer provides the just as vital backing, with much counterpoint in between. Thus works like the Trio Sonata No.6 in G major  (BWV.530, originally for organ) and Sonata in G minor (BWV.1029, for viola da gamba and keyboard), the two longest works  and both in three movements, make for excellent showcases.

Also significant is the Prelude and Fugue in E minor (BWV.548, for organ), known as “The Wedge” because of the widening intervals in its fugue, which receives an absorbing performance despite sounding quite different from the original. 

More familiar are the Chorale Preludes Wachet auf (Sleepers Awake), Ich ruft zu Dir (I Call To Thee) and Erbarme Dich mein (Have Mercy On Me), as well as selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Art Of Fugue. Both spiritual and vivacious, this enjoyable album yet again demonstrates the timelessness of Bach. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2019


re:Sound with Enrico Onofri
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (13 January 2019)

This review was published by The Straits Times on 15 January 2019 with the title "Sparkling evening of baroque delights".

Lovers of baroque music could not have gotten to a better start this year. Previous weekend’s Red Dot Baroque concert was followed by another sparkling evening, on this occasion by re:Sound, Singapore first professional chamber ensemble. The scope was wider, covering some 300 years of Italian music. This was led by Italian violinist-conductor Enrico Onofri, well-known for his long association with Italian period instrument group Il Giardino Armonico.

The first half was all baroque, opening with Dario Castello’s Sonata No.16 for strings and harpsichord. Serving as palate teaser, the short single-movement work highlighted clear and incisive playing, with Onofri leading by example. Despite the smallness of ensemble, there was never any thinness in sound, just precision playing that piqued the ears.

Italy was the birthplace of the sonata and concerto, and home to the world’s first violin virtuosos. In concerti grossi by Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi, the solo (concertino) sections were shared by Onofri, who used three different bows, and re:Sound’s own players.

In Corelli’s Op.6 No.4, he was partnered by violinist Seah Huan Yuh and cellist Robert Choi. Throw in two trumpets, there was a feel of festive grandeur. For Vivaldi’s Op.3 No.11, violinist Gabriel Lee and cellist Theophilus Tan stepped into the spotlight. In both works, local soloists blended well with Onofri and were very much his equal. It was then left to him to apply the gilding and ornamentation to his solos, which was spectacular.

There was a cameo by 11-year-old Chloe Chua, Singapore’s co-winner at the Menuhin International Violin Competition of 2018, in Winter from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Confident like a seasoned pro, hers was a consummate reading and sheer pleasure was afforded by watching her being all eyes and ears, completely sympathetic to all of leader Onofri’s gestures and nuances.  Each of the three movements preceded by a reading of Vivaldi’s sonnet by William Ledbetter.     

The hour-long first half was completed by Luigi Boccherini’s famous programmatic quintet called Night Music of the Streets of Madrid. Raucous sounds of a summer’s evening (of bells, drums, buskers and bands) were simulated. With cellos strummed like guitars, a rowdy procession ensued before receding into the distance.

Onofri exchanged his bows for a baton in the second half of Italian music from the Romantic era and early 20th century. There was some tentative playing in the slow introduction of Rossini’s Overture to La Cenerentola (Cinderella) but that was soon dispelled in the fast section. Ralph Lim’s clarinet solo led the way to a trademark Rossinian crescendo, gradually building up in speed and volume to a rousing climax.

That was followed by the four movements from Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No.1, essentially modern orchestrations of old renaissance and baroque tunes. It was a melodious and enjoyable romp with lively contributions from woodwinds and harp. The applause was loud and vociferous, with the Rossini overture being encored to further delight.      

All photographs by Yong Junyi, by the kind courtesy of re:Sound.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

THE SEASONS OF LOVE / Red Dot Baroque / Review

Red Dot Baroque
Sunday (6 January 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 January 2019 with the title "Baroque showcase with never a dull moment".

Red Dot Baroque, Singapore’s first professional baroque ensemble, made its debut last August at the Esplanade Recital Studio. That quiet but momentous event seemed like a soft launch in comparison to this concert at a capacity-filled Chijmes Hall. Here, it was unveiled as the ensemble-in-residence of Sing’Baroque, a newly formed academy founded by Frenchman Arnaud de Fontgalland (below) to promote the pursuit and appreciation of baroque music in Singapore.

The 12-member ensemble led by home-grown violinist Alan Choo gave a 90-minute concert performed without intermission. The usual suspects of Bach and Handel were given a wide berth. Instead the excellently-curated programme of less familiar works chose to showcase myriad moods captured in the seasons within different lands of 17th and 18th century Europe.  

The evening opened with Belgian soprano Lilith Verhelst singing Henry Purcell’s Music For A While, her pristine voice illuminating the nave in a procession from the back of the hall. The ensemble accompanying her then proceeding into Part III of Heinrich Biber’s Mensa Sonora, a suite of short dances. The music was intimate and lithe, lifted by feather-light textures, alternating between fast and slow movements.

Verhelst would sing three more songs, in French (by Michel Lambert) and Italian (Barbara Strozzi and Girolamo Frecobaldi), expressing melancholy and sorrow typified by the baroque lament before finally exulting in an outburst of joy. The instrumental music paired with the songs echoed these diverse moods, providing the much needed contrasts for the concert. There was never a dull moment.

In the French segment, Francois Couperin’s La Françoise (from Les Nations) which featured flute (Rachel Ho), viola da gamba (Mervyn Lee), theorbo (Christopher Johann Clarke on a long-necked lute) and harpsichord (Gerald Lim) alternated between the subdued and cheerful. Then the stage was cleared for  Tan Qin Ying’s dainty dance steps in Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Chaconne de Phaeton, a series of short instrumental variations.

Ornamentation and the art of improvisation was a quintessential baroque art, and opportunities were found in Giovanni Fontana’s Sonata Settima for Choo on violin and Lim on harpsichord. There were some decidedly modern and un-baroque flourishes in the latter’s keyboard display but the adventurous spirit of the baroque was certainly on target.

The only concession to familiarity was Vivaldi’s Summer from The Four Seasons. The sonnet (penned by Vivaldi himself) that inspired the concerto was read before the performance, which saw Choo in his element for its virtuosic solo part. His was an animated stage personality equalled by perfect intonation and the sheer ease and natural way of his bowing.

This drew the loudest and longest applause, which was repeated after Tarquinio Merula’s Ciaconna segueing into Frescobaldi’s Se l’aura spira (If The Breeze Blows) with Verhelst taking centrestage. So joyous was the reception that the last song was encored to marvellous effect. Sing’Baroque has gotten off to a most auspicious start. 

All the performers (L to R):
Lilith Verhelst, Gabriel Lee (violin), Chen Zhangyi (viola),
Tan Qin Ying (harpsichord/dance), Mervyn Lee (gamba/guitar),
Alan Choo, Leslie Tan (cello), Christopher Johann Clarke,
Edmund Song (bass), Gerald Lim, Rachel Ho & Brenda Koh (violin).
The historic CHIJMES by night.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

CD Review (The Straits Times, January 2019)

Deutsche Grammophon 479 9854 / *****

Although she may be 77 years old, Argentine piano legend Martha Argerich continues to perform and record. A recent release is an hour of music by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), transcribed for two pianos by Armenian-American pianist Sergei Babayan, the latest in a long illustrious line of piano duo partners.

Twelve movements from the ballet Romeo And Juliet are performed as a suite, and there are only several movements in common with Prokofiev’s own original set of solo pieces (Op.75) for two hands. New are the evocative Dance With Mandolins and the scintillating music-box effects in Morning Serenade. The Gavotte is a familiar dance rehashed from the 3rd movement of his Classical Symphony while Death Of Tybalt provides a suitably dramatic and violent end.

Much of the music exploits the lower registers of two pianos. The results are brooding and darkly sonorous but richly detailed. Much less familiar are arrangements of Prokofiev’s incidental music from Eugene Onegin and Hamlet, film music from The Queen of Spades, a waltz from the opera War and Peace and one Pushkin Waltz. The performances sound freshly-minted, spontaneous, and are brilliantly recorded. Highly recommended.   

Sunday, 23 December 2018


In December every year, The Straits Times publishes a list of the Best and Worst in the arts scene in Singapore, a fixture I have been contributing faithfully over the years. As the number of concert and album reviews published by ST have been diminishing with each season, the choices have also become more difficult to make. Take it or leave it, this is my very personal list for 2018, and it was well worth every minute. 

This Best and Worst list was published in The Sunday Times on 23 December 2018.


Orchestra of the Music Makers
Esplanade Concert Hall, 2 June 2018

Trust the Orchestra of Music Makers (OMM) to mark its 10th anniversary by giving the Singapore premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in commemoration of the great American composer-conductor’s birth centenary. Conducted by Joshua Tan, this most moving of performances featured a large orchestra with electric guitars and rock drum-sets, two choruses with 130 voices, a semi-chorus of 16 street-singers and American tenor Kevin Vortmann in a tour-de-force as the Celebrant.

The concert's roaring success was underpinned by clear-headed direction and ecumenical multimedia visuals which enhanced the music-making. This two-hour long reflection of the liturgical mass enabled every man to find his own faith, unfettered by rigid doctrines or dogmas. 

The Arts House, 12 October 2018

Given the paucity of Singaporean opera, it was a coup for little opera company L’arietta to mount three single-act operas by composer Chen Zhangyi and librettist Jack Lin in a single sitting. This included the world premiere of Kopi For One (2018), featuring the vocal talents of sopranos Akiko Otao and Yee Ee Ping, and tenor Jonathan Charles Tay accompanied by a small ensemble led by the composer himself.

Also performed were his earlier operas Laksa Cantata (2013) and Window Shopping (2014). All three had realistic local settings and scenarios which audiences could easily relate to, and given the high quality of singing and directing, this marked an important landmark in the short and chequered history of Singapore opera.  


CLARISSE TEO Piano Recital
Esplanade Recital Studio, 12 August 2018

Imagine giving a debut piano recital but without playing the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Chopin. It was sheer audacity for young law graduate-turned-pianist Clarisse Teo to offer a programme of absolute esoterica in works by Mompou, Medtner, D’Indy, Alexandrov and Villa-Lobos, much in the hallowed tradition of the Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum festival in Germany

That she conducted herself with utter confidence and supreme musicality was beyond doubt. Equally admirable was a sizeable audience that was totally enthralled by her performance, and reciprocated with the same warmth and enthusiasm that she had displayed.   


Centaur 3661 / *****

This appears to be a first ever recording coupling the two mammoth piano sonatas of the great Russians composers Piotr Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninov. Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata in G major and Rachmaninov’s First Sonata in D minor play for well over half-an-hour each, and Singapore-based Filipino pianist Albert Tiu goes for the big picture.

He paces each very well, building up arch-like to thrilling climaxes. Further contrasts provided in the slow movements are brought out with idiomatic feeling and unfailing imagination. Tiu is a born Romantic at heart, and this is proud production of Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory that can stand up to scrutiny with the best recordings of the classical catalogue.

re:mix  / FOO SAY MING
re:mix #002 / *****

Here is a new album of popular songs, golden oldies mixed with more recent ones, performed by the land's leading purveyor of musical nostalgia, the crack string ensemble re:mix led by Singapore Symphony Orchestra first violinist Foo Say Ming.

The two major works are by Hong Kong-based British composer-conductor Dominic Sargent. Sonatina headily brings together Bee Gees, Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson, while Sonata Latina recycles songs like Solamente Una Vez, Quizas Quizas Quizas, Besame Mucho, Desafinado and Conga.

Singaporean arrangers Chen Zhangyi and Derek Lim also get a look in. Foo and his charges are sumptuously recorded, making this classy trip to yesteryear a most memorable one.  

CHOPIN The Complete Preludes
MusicShaun / *****

With this self-produced and self-recorded album, young pianist Shaun Choo became only the second Singaporean (after Azariah Tan) to record an all-Chopin disc. The main work is the complete set of 24 Préludes (Op.28). Choo finds a wealth of nuances and kaleidoscopic responses in this seemingly disparate set of miniatures.

In the scintillating Grande Valse Brillante in E flat major (Op.18), he combines elegance with exuberance. The programme is completed by the brooding Nocturne in C minor (Op.48 No.1) and the very familiar “Heroic” Polonaise in A flat major (Op.53), performed with passion and polish. Choo is a compelling home-grown artist destined for even bigger things.

This disc is available at and online/streaming platforms like Spotify and Deezer.    


Deutsche Grammophon 479 8756 / **1/2

The Germany-born Menahem Pressler (born 1923) is the “grand old man” of the piano. However, his solo album of French piano music, recorded last year, does his legacy scant justice. Almost every item is played at a funereal and lugubrious tempo.  Claude Debussy’s First Arabesque, Reverie and Clair de lune (from Suite Bergamasque) are so dragged out that one’s patience is sorely tested. The same stolidity applies to the selection of five Préludes, while Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte stretches to nearly 8 minutes. A dispiriting showing from a great pianist.   

Thursday, 20 December 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, December 2018)

Jiyoon Lee (Violin)
Henry Kramer (Piano)
Champs Hill Records 141 / ****1/2

As solo calling cards go, this solo album by young Korean violinist Jiyoon Lee, winner of the 2013 David Ostrakh and 2016 Carl Nielsen International Violin Competitions, is pretty impressive. The programme is predominantly Eastern European which is par for the course in displaying virtuosic flair and heart-on-sleeve emotional expression. 

It begins with the neoclassicism of Igor Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, six movements from the ballet Pulcinella based on music by Pergolesi and other Italian baroque composers. The formal lines are beautifully shaped in its alternating fast and slow dance movements, contrasted by the dreamy ruminative musings of Henryk Wieniawski’s Legende.  

The fiery gypsy temperament is exploited in Bela Bartok’s Rhapsody No.1 and Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane, which is pure unleashed passion. Her tone is robust but not unyielding, and turns ethereal in the titular Mythes by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. 

These are three gorgeous tones poems in soaring high registers and lilting lyricism inspired by ancient Greek and Roman mythology. The Fountain of Arethusa, Narcissus, and Dryades and Pan also delight in a fiendishly difficult piano part, superbly marshalled by excellent American pianist Henry Kramer. Here are 67 minutes of sheer string pleasure.   

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

CHRISTMAS CONCERT 2018 / Ensemble de la Belle Musique / Review

Ensemble de la Belle Musique
Esplanade Recital Studio
Monday (17 December 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 December 2018 with the title "Joyous premieres of Christmas music".

Imagine a concert of new music featuring ten world premieres from an international cast of nine composers attended by a nearly full-capacity audience at Esplanade. That sounds like wishful thinking or some fancy Christmas dream but that is the reality in the third concert staged by Ensemble de la Belle Musique (EBM).

The ensemble was founded for the sole purpose of performing contemporary music that is tonal, tuneful and enjoyable. That was exactly what the audience got, a two-hour long Christmas stocking filled to bulging with goodies and sweetmeats, performed by the 20-member chamber orchestra led by Leonard Tan.

Morning by Massimo de Lillo (Italy) opened the proceedings, with a French horn and flute solo floating over reassuring E major chords, as a depiction of nascent life stirring in the glow of a winter’s morn. The other Italian Leonello Capodaglio’s Venetian Christmas Fantasy was more traditional, an all-string work inspired by old pastoral nativity scenes, generating a sonority that recalled Vivaldi and Gabrieli. 

Consider how composers crafted music evoking the falling of snow. American Kari Cruver Medina’s One Snowy Day... worked with string pizzicatos, piano ostinatos and woodwind figurations sprinked with discreet brass while maintaining an almost-minimalist pulse. In Indonesian Maleva Ristananda’s Snow Begins to Fall, luminous string textures lit up by chimes from the xylophone worked from gentle precipitation to heavier drifts while a conjuring a holiday mood.

There were also diversely different styles of festive music on show. Australian Daxter Yeo’s Natsukashii evoked nostalgia with flute, piano and string octet in the style of romantic anime film music. In Journey On Christmas Eve by Usman Anees (Pakistan), there was a distinct South Asian accent in its fast flute solos and melodies for violin and oboe. The contrasts between the former’s placid warmth and the latter’s frenetic pace could not have been more stark. 

Three young Singaporean composers were also spotlighted. Jon Tho Santa’s Old Workshop for strings alone was the shortest work but also the edgiest, with hints of dissonances without infringing on OB markers. Yvonne Tan’s A Christmas Reunion was rousing and celebratory, with rhythmic syncopations to suggest a train journey or fast sleigh ride homeward bound.

Lim Han Quan may have struck one as awkward and somewhat simplistic in his spoken preamble but came up with the two glitziest pieces on show, both with substantial concertante roles. Wonderland, The Beauty Of Winter handed solo violinist Chua Lik Wuk the role of Straussian concert leader in an elegant and rapturous waltz of the best Viennese tradition.

Not to be outdone, trumpeter Kenneth Lun channelled the spirit of Miles Davis in A Jazzy Night To Remember, singing the blues slickly accompanied by the ensemble, Low Shao Ying’s piano and Sanche Jagatheesan’s bass. Smiles aplenty and no minor chords within earshot, that is how joyous Christmas concerts ought to be.  

Thursday, 6 December 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, December 2018)

JI LIU, Piano
Classic FM D56 / ****1/2

Take a seat, Lang Lang and Li Yundi, as the latest Chinese piano sensation is Liu Ji, or Ji Liu as he is known in London where he is based. His fourth album on the Classic FM label (distributed by Decca) has two of the five Chinese elements as the theme: fire and water.

The usual suspects of musical impressionism are here, represented by Debussy’s Reflections on The Water (from Images Book 1), the preludes The Engulfed Cathedral and Fireworks, and Ravel’s Jeux D’Eau (Fountains) and Une Barque Sur L’Ocean (A Boat In The Sea), where he is at his fluid and incandescent best. To serve populist tastes, there is Ludovico Einaudi’s Le Onde (The Waves), Manuel de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance and Ode To The Yellow River from the infamous Yellow River Concerto.

The last was a transcription by Liu himself, as are two movements from Saint-Saens’ Carnival Of The Animals (Aquarium and The Swan) and Rachmaninov’s song Floods Of Spring, which sound very idiomatic. Guido Agosti transcription of three movements from Stravinsky’s The Firebird is the big virtuoso work that is guaranteed to bring down the house.

Alexander Scriabin’s Second Sonata (or Sonata-Fantasy) in G sharp minor seems like a curious choice. However its two diametrically contrasted movements sound like a vivid musical portrayal of water and fire respectively, even if the Russian had not intended it so. The yin and yang of piano music has seldom been better illuminated in these scintillating performances.  

Thursday, 22 November 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, November 2018)

SMETANA Festive Symphony
The Bartered Bride: Overture & Dances
Berlin Radio Symphony / DARRELL ANG
Naxos 8.573672 / ****1/2

At the rate he is going, Darrell Ang could well become the most recorded Singaporean conductor of all time. His recorded repertoire has been diverse and this disc features the music of Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884), hailed as the “Father of Czech music”. Although very well known for his symphonic poem cycle Ma Vlast (My Country) from the 1870s, his early Festive Symphony of 1854 is virtually unknown.

As a loyal subject of the Habsburg empire, he quoted the Emperor’s Hymn (popularised by Joseph Haydn in his “Emperor” String Quartet, Op.76 No.3) in three of its four movements. The work runs to almost 43 minutes, and almost outstays its welcome amid grand fanfares and martial postures, culminating in the Hymn blared out at its triumphal and grandstanding conclusion.

Only in the dance-like 3rd movement does one hear Smetana’s nationalism at play, looking forward to Dvorak’s popular Slavonic Dances to come. The fill-up in this album are the Overture and three fast dances – Polka, Furiant and Dance Of The Comedians - from the nationalist opera The Bartered Bride

These, rather than the symphony, constitute vintage Smetana and represents his best music. Darrell Ang and the excellent Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra offer lively performances, comparable with the best recordings in the catalogue. For the rarely heard and seldom recorded symphony, they have the field to their own, so do have a listen.   

Monday, 19 November 2018

UPBEAT / Igudesman & Joo / Review

Igudesman & Joo with the
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (17 November 2018)

This review was published by The Straits Times on 19 November 2018 with the title "Fun with comical and classical mash-ups."

The musical comedy duo of violinist Aleksey Igudesman and pianist Hyung-ki Joo have been delighting audiences, live and on YouTube, for years. Coming across much better in the flesh, their two-hour-long gig was enhanced by the connivance of the excellent and totally sporting Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra.

Musical jokes tend to be a little too sophisticated for casual audiences, more often suited for cued-in listeners than being outrightly hilarious. Igudesman and Joo however found a happy medium by adding a little slapstick to their schtick but stuck to being seriously good musicians.

Whoever thought they could both sing or conduct? They took turns leading the orchestra in An Austrian In America. The 5-movement spiel was to mash up classical tunes by Austrian greats with American standards. The Overture saw Strauss’ Die Fledermaus Overture mixed with Old Folks At Home, Simple Gifts and Yankee Doodle. Schubert Loves America muddied Die Forelle (The Trout) with, well, America.

Oh My Darling Johann Strauss had Wiener Blut bloodied with Clementine, sounding like La Valse gone horribly wrong. And no prizes of guessing what melodies got marching orders in Stars And Radetzky Forever. The audience also got their spot of synchronised clapping.

Speaking of audiences, there was a send-up to their bronchial members in the form of a concerto for coughing violinist. The soloist did not get to play a single note, but his respiratory affliction soon infected the conductor, orchestra and audience, resulting in a ca-cough-phonous conclusion.

“And a piece by Rachmaninov,” announced Igudesman, and that was the entire 1st movement of the Second Piano Concerto. After its sonorous opening chords, Joo showed that the first few minutes could easily be faked as the orchestra’s tutti soared with the big tune. As it turned out, he could also play the tricky solo bits as well, and fairly convincing too.  

Among the best spoofs was the baiting of Richard Wagner, the vilest anti-Semite among composers. The idea of turning his Ride Of The Valkyries and Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin into a riot of Klezmer and Kalinka was a brilliant riposte to the boor of Bayreuth. At its climax, Igudesman sporting a Darth Vader mask proclaimed, “I am your... bride!”

In the same vein were uproarious orchestrations of that pesky Nokia ringtone (originally a waltz for guitar by Tarrega) in the styles of Mozart, Brahms, Schoenberg and culminating in a battle between conductors where Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Dvorak tussled for the right to conclude the work. Beethoven (his Ninth Symphony) won.

There was even a spot for young Singaporean guitarist Kevin Loh to share the limelight, alongside original compositions by the duo. The fun had to end sometime, and it was to the strains of Zorba The Greek, Sabre Dance and Chariots Of Fire. It should be concluded that Igudesman & Joo are the best comedians among musicians, and the best musicians among comedians.   

Darth Voyder sticks it up to Richard Wagner,
"Up yours, goy!"