Wednesday, 24 November 2021





Capitol Theatre

Friday (5 November 2021)


There cannot be any person who grew up during the 1960s and 1970s who will not recognise a melody by French composer, arranger, pianist and conductor Michel Legrand (1932-2019). Winner of three Oscars and five Grammies, his music was celebrated in this enjoyable concert by the Jazz Association (Singapore) Orchestra (JASSO) led by founder and Music Director Jeremy Monteiro, as part of the Voilah! French Singapore Festival.


What does a Legrand melody sound like? The Summer Knows from the 1971 movie (Summer of ‘42) is an excellent example, a minor key tune tinged with a bittersweet melancholy that cuts to the bone and lingers on, once heard not easily forgotten. Jeremy Monteiro’s first experience of it was the recording by Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos (Decca Phase 4), and possibly for many others as well. This evening’s take conducted by Monteiro was a more upbeat version, joined by French guest soloists, saxophonist Syvain Beuf and trumpeter Nicolas Folmer, who performed via live video conference from their homes.


Just as exuberant was Watch What Happens, with Monteiro taking on the vocals while leading from the piano. This arrangement by Michael Veerapen also allowed the saxophone to shine in solos as well. Further vocals were provided by American veteran Richard Jackson and local teenager Maya Raisha. Jackson was all soul in What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?, another archetypal Legrand melody for which his deep baritone, as smooth as satin, was best suited. This performance chanelled an unspeakable sadness which could only come from personal experience. Raisha joined him in How Do You Keep The Music Playing?, but hers was one of youthful ecstacy. Oil and water do not mix, and thankfully they did not come together until briefly at the end.


Legrand’s music was also an inspiration for several original works by the performers. Valse pour Michel (Waltz for Michel), a joint creation of Monteiro, Folmer and Beuf, had an insouciant Parisian lilt, which opened slow and languid but later picked up on speed. Beuf’s Espoir (Hope), was a song crafted in the midst of the pandemic, in form of a waltz with exciting sax extemporations. Folmer’s Le Chateau de Guillaumes, inspired by castle ruins in the south of France, sang the moody blues on his trumpet, while casting a knowing nostalgic look. Both Frenchmen solo’d in You Must Believe In Spring, another piece which began slow and built up a head of steam.


I Will Wait For You from La Parapluies de Cherbourg (1965) is another Legrand evergreen, however its immortal melody was almost lost in Associate Director Weixiang Tan’s dissonant arrangement that leaned to the avant-garde. The tune was simply the best part of this number, so why ignore it? It was left to Sean Hong Wei’s sax and a grandstanding close to save the day. Monteiro’s own Seul A Paris (Alone In Paris), in the style of the French chanson, was filled with the moody blues and soulfully rendered by Maya. Singapore’s “King of Swing” might well have been a dyed-in-the-wool Frenchman in a previous life.


The concert closed with Louis Guglielmi’s La vie en rose with Maya taking on the role of chanteuse Edith Piaf (who had popularised it). Styling it in her own very upbeat way, she was aided by a very busy Rit Xu on flute. There was time for an encore, which saw a return of Jackson in Joseph Kosma’s Autumn Leaves, another unforgettable melody which saw scat-singing and trombone solos aplenty. However trust Weixiang Tan to transforming it to almost beyond recognition, which to these ears seemed like modernism for its own sake. Call me old fashioned, but melodies are meant to be loved and cherished, protected like prized gems. Shun and ignore them to your peril! 

Anyhow, this concert by the 14-member JASSO was in many ways an artistic and musical triumph. Further performances from this extremely talented and enterprising outfit are to be welcomed with warm and open arms. 

Photographs by Norhendra Ruslan, courtesy of Jazz Association (Singapore)

PIANO FANTASIES / PAVEL GINTOV on Navona Records / Review



Navona Records NV6379


Prize-winning Ukrainian pianist Pavel Gintov takes the listener on a chronological survey of keyboard fantasies, spanning some two hundred years, from the baroque era to the early 20th century. Fantasies have evolved over the centuries, beginning as creations of whim and fancy, which later espoused the idea of compositional “free form” as opposed to strict “sonata form”. In a way, what is not a sonata is a fantasy. However, this distinction became blurred along the way, which is why we have sonata-fantasies and their like, also explored by this fine pianist.


J.S.Bach’s Fantasia in C minor (BWV.906), usually performed without its companion fugue (left incomplete), makes for a stirring opener. Originally for harpsichord, Gintov’s clarity of articulation is faultless and the play of counterpoint, involving frequent crossing of hands is also excellent. His son C.P.E.Bach’s Fantasia in C major is as quirky as they come, a close cousin in spirit to Beethoven’s more extended Fantasia in G minor (Op.77). Both works delight in unexpected twists and turns, abrupt shifts in moods and dynamics, while revelling in a deliciously shared anarchic spirit. In between, Haydn’s Fantasia in C (Hob.XVII:4) comes across as a kind of light entertainment.


Neither of Mozart’s well-known Fantasias in D minor and C minor are included, but one gets instead the late Fantasia in F minor (K.608), orinally written for mechanical clock. More often heard in versions for organ or piano four hands, Gintov’s own transcription is a convincing one. This fantasy takes the form of a French overture, opening with a declamation in dotted rhythm, followed by a mighty fugue. Here, Gintov’s handling of disparate voices in counterpoint is pin-point in its incisiveness.   


Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor (Op.49), the best-known work of this collection, is ironically crafted in single movement sonata form. It receives a fine reading that lacks nothing in drama and technical execution.


The true discovery of Gintov’s recital is the Sonata-Fantasy No.2 by fellow Ukrainian Théodore Akimenko (1876-1945), student of Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev, and first composition teacher of Stravinsky. Composed in 1911, it shares certain similarities with the work of same designation by Scriabin, namely its two-movement form, late Romantic idiom and ecstatically charged atmosphere. The moods in both movements are however reversed. The first channels agitation and volatility, with flights of fantasy conducted over an increasing demented waltz rhythm, while the second winds down ever so peaceably and dreamily as a slow waltz. So should this be called a waltz-fantasy as well?


Its quiet close in B major leads seamlessly into Scriabin’s far better-known Fantasy in B minor (Op.28, from 1900), its relative major key. Here the listener returns to more familiar territory, and Gintov provides harmonic richness for the ears as this interesting recital disc draws to a breathless and exciting conclusion.  

Saturday, 20 November 2021

DANCES OF PANAMA / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall

Friday (19 November 2021)


How refreshing it is to attend a concert of string music that does not include the ubiquity of serenades by Dvorak/Tchaikovsky/Elgar or various combinations of Holberg Suite Simple Symphony and Adagios Adagiettos Andante Cantabiles. What the audience got instead was an unusually eclectic programme of 20th century and contemporary string music conducted by Uruguayan conductor Carlos Kalmar, who also served as friendly and avuncular host.


Rarities are the way to go, especially when good music is involved. The audience size was also encouraging, indicating that people yearn for music even if these were not familiar favourites. African-American composer William Grant Still’s Dances of Panama (1948) opened the concert. Its four movements could be classified as “light music”, that is easy listening cast in classical mould and orchestrated like concert music. There are probably ethno-musicological bases to these dances, sometimes sounding like Spanish music with occasional Caribbean influences, and may be enjoyed as one would Hungarian Dances and Slavonic Dances. SSO’s strings breathed life into these little-known numbers, and they just got started.


Great Dane Carl Nielsen’s Suite for Strings (1888) is perhaps the only familiar music to be heard, but it is still a relative rarity in these parts. An elegiac quality with weeping violins occupied the opening Prelude, with echoes of Grieg looming ever so closely overhead. The lively Intermezzo channelled Dvorak in its central waltz-like section, and it was in the finale where hints of Nielsen’s great symphonies may be discerned, such as an inexorable sense of exhilaration generated. Having grown up with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields’ famous 1970s recording, one could only long for a live performance, and here SSO truly fulfilled expectations.    


Pulitzer Prize winning American composer Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte (2011) is well worth several listens because of her skilful subversion of what listeners take for granted as typical string music. This performance presented what sounded vaguely familiar but passed through a series of distorting prisms and lenses. Comforting string timbres coloured with incidental sounds like harmonics, portamenti, bows and fingers sliding on non-resonating strings added to a sense of wonderment. There was a central episode of pizzicato polka-ing which seemed like a modern update of the Johann Strauss classic, before winding down with Yu Jing’s strumming on her cello as the only sound as silence fell around her. Interesting, to say the least.

Cellist Yu Jing receives applause.


English composer Frank Bridge’s Suite for string orchestra (1909) was the evening’s truly neglected gem. Why has this never been played before? New rule: every performance of RVW’s Fantasia of Greensleeves must be reciprocated with this Bridge. Besides, it is a better and far more original work. The first movement Prelude has that pastoral feel common to fellow Brits with the use of modal themes, the ensemble responding with the richness of sonority worthy of RVW’s Tallis Fantasy. The second and fourth movements, both short and fast-paced, have the fluffy quality of light music but the heart rests in the third movement’s Nocturne. It is an elegy with the same soul-searching and moving ability as that overplayed Samuel Barber Adagio, but without the shrieking hysteria. It provided moments for reflection, a rare beauty that also saw short sublime solos from Yu Jing’s cello and Guan Qi’s viola.


String playing has long been the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s strong suit. Covid or no, this concert upholds that assertion, and long may that remain. 

All photographs by Aloysius Lim, courtesy of Singapore Symphony Orchestra. 

Friday, 19 November 2021





Navona Records NV6372


How exactly does one define a “virtuoso”? Is that someone who can master the most technically difficult exercises, proficiently making the seemingly impossible appear like child’s play? Or is it much more than that? That the creations of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) come from a virtuoso mind is without doubt, but is this début album by young Maltese-Russian Dmitry Ishkhanov worthy of its title?


The four early Mazurkas of Op.17 are not virtuoso fodder, but the 16-year-old infuses these miniatures with an aching nostalgia and the Polish sense of heimat, the secure feeling of being at home. The celebrated A minor Mazurka (No.4) is taken at a measured pace, and that works because it is allowed to breathe whole-heartedly while maintaining the vital triple-time rhythm and pulse. The Nocturne in C sharp minor (Op.27 No.1) smoulders with intent, then catches fire in its central climax. As the album plays for under 55 minutes, surely there should have included its companion, the D flat major Nocturne (Op.27 No.2), if anything to better appreciate Ishkhanov’s feel for cantabile.


In the 12 Études of Op.25, one finally arrives in true-blue virtuoso territory. That Chopin’s myriad technical challenges hold no terrors for Ishkhanov comes as little surprise. He tosses off the runs of  treacherous thirds in the G sharp minor Étude (No.6) with nonchalant ease, while the stampeding octaves of the B minor Étude (No.10) do not sound blindingly fast but delivered with specific purposes in mind. That is to highlight the melting lyricism of its soft centre, and a similar experience may be enjoyed in the E minor “Wrong note” Étude (No.5). In the C sharp minor “Cello” Étude (No.7), the art of bel canto is in full flow, thus revealing the true secrets of his virtuosity. He has the sensibility of a poet, not the “shock and awe” modus operandi of the common garden child prodigy, and the maturity of one double or thrice his chronological age.


Come 2025, watch out Warsaw and the 19th Chopin International Piano Competition, a winner is coming your way! 

Wednesday, 17 November 2021



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday (11 November 2021)




School of The Arts Concert Hall

Friday (12 November 2021)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 November 2021


Vaccinated travel lanes have truly been a boon for classical music performances in Singapore. Following two excellent concerts by renowned baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants (France) earlier in the week, renowned French pianist Cédric Tiberghien performed with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and gave a solo recital as part of the 2021 Voilah! France Singapore Festival.

Photo: Jack Yam


Mozart’s music featured on both evenings, with Tiberghien helming the tricky solo in the rarely-performed Piano Concerto No.13 in C major (K.415). The only other time SSO played this was back in 2003 with 11-year-old Abigail Sin as soloist. Tiberghien offered a seasoned veteran’s view of the celebratory work, with clarity of fingerwork balanced with flowing lyricism. There were also ample opportunities for display in cadenzas in all three movements.


While the jaunty finale’s Rondo delighted with alternating between major and minor keys, Tiberghien’s sly quote of the main theme from Mozart’s very popular Piano Concerto No.21 piqued the ears. His encore of Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes (Sad Birds) from Miroirs, replete with bird calls, echoes and pregnant silences, did not seem out of place given that the concert opened with the Frenchman’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Its four neo-baroque dance movements highlighted excellent solos from principal oboist Rachel Walker, which made this almost sound like a concertante work.


Leading the orchestra was Uruguayan conductor Carlos Kalmar who coaxed a glittering reading of Mozart’s Symphony No.31 in D major, also called his Paris Symphony. Paired woodwinds, brass and timpani lent an air of pomp and ceremony to its rather short-winded three movements, but the impact of pleasing an audience – Mozart’s original intention -  was certainly achieved.   

Photo: Nathaniel Lim


Tiberghien’s solo recital was centred on the idea of theme and variations. Mozart’s Sonata in A major (K.331) opened with a familiar lullaby-like melody, subjected to one of his best-known set of variations. Inventiveness and a sense of improvisation were given full rein in this tasteful reading that did not seek to provoke, but that would come later. The central movement’s Minuet and Trio delighted with regular crossing of hands, followed by the exuberant romp that is the ubiquitous Rondo alla Turca (Turkish Rondo).


The highlight of the evening was Beethoven’s Eroica Variations, using a theme from the ballet The Creatures Of Prometheus which later became the familiar subject of his “Eroica” Third Symphony. More a fantasy than strict set of variations, the rule book was thrown out with Beethoven’s multifarious interventions, humour and parodistic wit which made Mozart sound tame by comparison. Tiberghien lapped up all of this in a grandstanding reading, culminating in a busy fugue and emphatic close.

Photo: Nathaniel Lim


Inserted between the two was Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, an impressionistic voyage to an imaginary land of happiness. This ecstatic outpouring contrasted well with his serene encore, Dutch pianist Egon Petri’s transcription of J.S.Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, where two hands gave the impression of three hands at play.  

The full review of the SSO concert with Cédric Tiberghien, first published on Bachtrack, may be found here:

Thursday, 11 November 2021

THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday (5 November 2021)

This review was published by The Straits Times on 10 November 2021 with the title "Love story tugs at heartstrings".


It is not often that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra performs concerts entirely devoted to 20th century and contemporary Asian music. These are notable events, especially when works by two Singaporean composers were also receiving SSO premieres.


Singaporean composer Leong Yoon Pin
was a student of Nadia Boulanger.

SSO’s first Composer-in-Residence and Cultural Medallion recipient Leong Yoon Pin’s Largo and Vivace for strings (1982) opened the evening on a sombre note. While not strictly atonal, his idiom was astringent, reminiscent of twentieth century greats Bartok and Shostakovich. Conductor Joshua Tan skillfully guided the ensemble, with string textures coming through with leanness and clarity. If the Largo were a portrait of depression, the brief ensuing Vivace projected an agitated face of neurosis.


Chen Gang and He Zhan Hao’s evergreen Butterfly Lovers Concerto (1958) was the obvious box-office draw, which saw award-winning Singaporean violinist Loh Jun Hong helming the solo part. His voluminous tone was the highlight in this programmatic fantasy, more a tone poem than concerto, about the ill-fated lovers of Chinese folklore.


Unafraid to bare heart on sleeve, he pulled out all stops in this tear-jerker, also exercising wide portamenti or slides which relived Chinese opera-singing and weeping erhus. His duet with orchestral cellist Yu Jing provided moments of genuine intimacy in a work where vivid story-telling and sentimentality were strong suits.

Singaporean composer Ho Chee Kong
is the Interim Dean of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.


Ho Chee Kong’s double concerto for violin and cello entitled There And Back (2019) has no such programmatic pretensions. Before it began, SSO Principal Cellist Ng Pei-Sian dedicated the performance to his recently departed first cello teacher Barbara Yelland. Violinist Chan Yoong Han opened with an impassioned solo, followed by Ng himself with no less intensity, both accompanied by Mark Suter’s slow and ominous beat on bass drum.


The funereal pace strongly suggested a requiem in procession. The tempo then picked up with both soloists engaged in a neck-and-neck race, the music now resembling a cinematic score depicting broad vistas and the vast outback. The alternating slow and fast sections proved both unsettling yet exciting, and the duel between instruments absorbing and exhausting.


That had to end sometime, doing so with the orchestra silenced, and both violin and cello in quiet beatific unison. With bass drum taps remaining an idée fixe, the work may be considered a metaphorical epic journey of life itself. Ending as it began, with ups and downs in between, it represented a perpetual cycle from “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust”.


First performed by violinist Siow Lee-Chin and cellist Qin Li-Wei with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra led by Yeh Tsung, it made an instant impact and named best new work of 2019 in the pages of Life! This evening’s take was no less moving.


All three of the evening’s soloists were united for an encore designed to cheer up the audience. That turned out to be Alexander Oon’s arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion, the Argentine composer’s most melancholic tango of all. Ironically, it made for a truly fitting send-off. 

Monday, 8 November 2021




Victoria Concert Hall

Saturday (6 November 2021)


Young Berlin-based Russian pianist Zlata Chochieva’s debut recital in Singapore, presented by Altenburg Arts, was titled (re)creations but it could have easily been The Art of Transcription. Recitals of piano transcriptions are curious affairs, and Chochieva’s selection of Ignaz Friedman, Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninov transcriptions was especially astute by mixing the popular with the obscure.


Transcriptions of Polish pianist-composer Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948) are less well-known alongside those of Liszt, Busoni and Rachmaninov, but stand up very well by comparison. The recital opened with his transcription of the Adagio in G minor from a harpsichord sonata by Italian Giovanni Battista Grazioli (1746-1820). His dates suggest the classical period, but its lovely Mozartian melody was dressed up in such luscious textures as to look forward to the Romantic era.


Delicately but beautifully played, it made for great contrasts with Friedman’s take on the bustling first movement of J.S.Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3. Originally for strings, this imposing transcription took on orchestral dimensions, and one imagines the colours of winds and brass amidst the busy counterpoint. Similarly, the Tempo di Minuetto second movement from Mahler’s Third Symphony was crisply delivered and alive in orchestral detail, especially fantastical scherzo-like effects of its trio section. These true rarities served a total delight.

Photo: Ung Ruey Loon


The recital’s centrepiece were the five movements from Ravel’s Miroirs (Mirrors), a masterclass of crafting exquisite sonorities. Exemplary pedalling and featherlight touches distinguished Oiseaux tristes (Sad Birds) and La vallée des cloches (The Valley of Bells), where echoes hung and lingered ever so tantalisingly, while shimmering textures defined Noctuelles (Night Moths) and Une barque sur l’ocean (A Boat on the Ocean). In the latter, the focus was not on the vessel but the inexorable play of lapping waves building up to each crest. The strumming guitars in Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester) were vividly realised, a Spanish rhapsody that climaxed in a slew of sweeping glissandi. All this makes one yearn for Chochieva’s view of Gaspard de la nuit. The next time, perhaps?


The recital’s final third belonged to song and dance transcriptions, with mostly Liszt as protagonist. His transcriptions of Schubert’s lieder Wohin? (Whither) from Die Schöne Mullerin, Litanei and Auf dem Wasser zu singen (To Be Sung On The Water) are established classics. All through Chochieva’s playing, the warm glow of melodic lines were never blurred by accompanying figurations and filigree. Simplicity also reigned in Mendelssohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On Wings of Song), where true cantabile soared unimpeded to nether reaches.

Photo: Ung Ruey Loon


Rachmaninov’s transcription of Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is justifiably considered one of the most fearsome piano pieces ever dreamt of. Yet Chochieva hardly raised a sweat in its prestidigitations, accomplished with a lightness of touch that is enviable. Lovers of legendary recordings of Benno Moiseiwitsch and Rachmaninov himself will find a pianist of their equal here, and to experience it live is a rare privilege. Finally, the gemütlichkeit of the Gärtner-Friedman Viennese Dance No.1 provided a delicious end to the recital proper.


Tumultuous applause led to three encores: Chopin’s “Black Key” Étude (Op.10 No.5) with teasingly placed rubatos, the wild romp of the Mussorgsky-Rachmaninov Hopak from Sorochintsy Fair and Pierre Sancan’s coruscating Toccata to crown an evening of pianistic magnificence. 

Wednesday, 3 November 2021



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall

Wednesday (27 October 2021)



Chiyan Wong, Piano Recital

Esplanade Concert Hall

Sunday (31 October 2021)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 November 2021 with the title "Violinist excites, pianist tricks and treats".

The opening of travel lanes for overseas artists to perform here has invigorated the musical scene, not least London-based Singapore violinist Kam Ning’s two week residency with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. She capped last week’s two performances of Mendelssohn’s E Minor Violin Concerto with a splendid chamber concert leading the orchestra’s strings.

Photo: Nathaniel Lim


Haydn’s underrated Violin Concerto No.1 in C major saw her projecting a rich and healthy tone, alternating between solos and joining the general ensemble in the tuttis. While the outer movements buzzed with fervent activity, it was in the central slow movement where she was allowed to truly shine. Her seamless aria-like solo line radiated an unmatched beauty while accompanied by gentle pizzicato strings.  

Photo: Nathaniel Lim 


An unbridled sense of exhilaration possessed the finale, which continued into the hour-long concert’s second work, the dissonantly exciting Divertimento by 20th century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. The refinement of Haydn was now replaced by rough-hewn and earthy textures, and this made for fascinating contrasts.

Photo: Nathaniel Lim


Kam’s leadership kept the ensemble on a fine razor’s edge throughout, capable of switching from rapt pianissimos to loud slashing discords within a matter of seconds. While a gypsy fiddler’s insouciance defined her solos, it was her joie de vivre that proved to be most infectious. For want of a better word, she and her charges went headlong on a uninhibited romp in its final passages. The encore, Leroy Anderson’s pizzicato paradise, Plink, Plank, Plunk!, was no less enthusiastically received.


Photo: Ung Ruey Loon

Also making a welcome return was Berlin-based Hong Kong pianist Chiyan Wong, presented by Altenburg Arts. In recent years, Wong has made a name for himself as a Liszt and Busoni specialist, with a penchant for unusually eclectic programmes. His recital began neo-baroque with two movements from Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, displaying limpid and crystal clear articulation aided by judicious and subtle pedalling.


Photo: Ung Ruey Loon

In Wong’s take on Italian pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni’s edition of J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations, tricks and treats came aplenty on Halloween night. This performing version omitted all repeats, removed several variations, introduced surprising ear-catching new voices and dabbled in octave doublings. Purists will recoil at these revisions, but Wong’s missionary zeal aided with no little delicacy and outright virtuosity made this a compelling listen. Running under 34 minutes, this was a right Goldberg for people in a hurry.      

Chopin’s brief Mazurka in C sharp minor (Op.63 No.3), ravishingly voiced, was the prelude to Busoni’s Nine Variations on a Chopin Prélude. The subject was none other than the famous chord-laden Prélude in C minor (Op.28 No.20), and the modernist phantasmagorical set of variations held a 20th century distorting mirror to the earlier Bach.


Wong’s love for the offbeat also extended to his encore, Busoni’s Elegy No.4 or Turandots Frauengemach (Turandot’s Boudoir), which turned out to be the most outrageous transcription thought possible of Greensleeves. Naughty but nice.