Thursday, 21 June 2018

CD Review (The Straits Times, June 2018)

Orchestre National de Lille
DARRELL ANG (Conductor)
Naxos 8.573683 / ****1/2

How much do we actually know about the composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880)? For starters, he was German rather than French. He was also a virtuoso cellist who later became the most celebrated composer of operettas in Paris from the late 1850s till his death. This collection of overtures led by Singaporean conductor Darrell Ang contains some of Offenbach's most familiar and most neglected music.

Most well-known is the Overture to Orpheus In the Underworld, with its ubiquitous cancan, but has anyone noticed an oboe motif past the two-and-a-half-minute mark which resembles the fanfare from Zubir Said's national anthem Majulah Singapura? Listeners might also recognise the popular themes in the overtures to La Belle Helene and La Vie Parisienne.

The other overtures are very obscure, from operettas like The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein, The Drum-Major's Daughter, The Island of Tulipatan, Monsieur and Madame Denis, all of which are extremely tuneful and have that tub-thumping oompah quality. 

The real rarity is the early Ouverture a Grand Orchestra (1843), a stand-alone work which recalls the operatic overtures of Carl Maria von Weber and Rossini. A slow introduction soon gives way to an exciting allegro, which builds up in speed, volume and intensity, in short the archetypal Rossini crescendo. Ang and his French charges make the best possible case for this arcane corner of the orchestral repertoire.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018


The Philharmonic Winds
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (17 June 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 June 2018 with the title "Musical birthday party for an octogenarian"

For two evenings last week, the 77-year-old pianist Martha Argerich lit up the stage of Esplanade Concert Hall. On Sunday evening, it was the turn of octogenarian British conductor Timothy Reynish to dominate the proceedings, leading The Philharmonic Winds in an invigorating concert which celebrated his 80th birthday. 

Some of the works were commissioned by or dedicated to the wind orchestra's Principal Guest Conductor, and included two local premieres. The concert opened with Kenneth Hesketh's Masque, a light-hearted scherzo-like movement showcasing pinpoint articulation from the woodwinds and a big melody from the sonorous brass.

Its pomp and pageantry continued into Guy Woolfenden's Illyrian Dances, a neo-baroque suite of dance movements distinguished by flights of fancy. Sounding like film music of popular appeal, it was well played, such as in the finale's tricky jig-rhythms which closed with good humour.

A sterner test was provided by Derek Bourgeois' Symphony for William, the first of two extended works. Written in memory of Reynish's third son William, who was only 34 when he perished in a mountaineering accident, its three movements encapsulated the young man's free spirit.

The opening Will-o-the-Wisp displayed an elfin lightness and mordant wit not unlike scores by Prokofiev or Walton. A warm French horn solo provided a bittersweet tinge to the slow movement Dianthus Barbatus (Sweet William), answered by an oboe's plaint in calm moments of reflection and contemplation. The finale, Will Power, bristled with anger and discord before racing off in a wild chase which brought to mind Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, but it closed on a quiet note.

The other big work was Yasuhide Ito's As Time Is Passing On, a symphonic poem which featured the 65-strong Philharmonic Winds Festival Chorus (Zechariah Goh, choirmaster). Mortality and impermanence were delved in its four linked sections, opening with a sombre Lamento before erupting into a lively Marcia, striding with Elgarian swagger.

Japanese composer Yasuhide Ito
receives the applause for his works.

The voices entered in Dies Irae, all dissonance and apocalyptic visions, and followed up mostly a cappella in the final part singing in Japanese. The accompaniment was light, with isolated percussion, pared-down woodwinds and harp. Closing in Latin with Requiem Aeternam, this brought to mind Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, originally dedicated to the Empire of Japan but rejected because of its religious content. Ito was just returning the favour here.   

Receiving its world premiere was Ito's Time-Into-Music, written for Reynish's seven score and ten. A chirpy woodwind chorale gave way to a busy fugue, quoting from Verdi's opera Falstaff (composed when the Italian was 80), before returning to the earlier celebration. Another birthday greeting was Spaniard Luis Alarcon's Tim, A British Pasodoble, a bull-fighting dance dressed in English garb with a cheeky quote from Elgar's Pomp & Circumstance March No.1.

The concert concluded with Adam Gorb's Bohemian Revelry, four movements of Slavonic-styled  dances taking Smetana and Dvorak as inspiration. Rustic, comedic and colourful, it was an excellent way to end a musical birthday party.  

Saturday, 16 June 2018


Heartiest congratulations are due for the Singapore International Piano Festival and its organisers, the Singapore Symphony Group, on the 25th Anniversary of its founding. In 1994, there was no culture of holding piano recital series in Singapore, and the Festival then became the brightest fixture of the local concert season for many years. 

The biggest coup of the silver anniversary was bringing Argentine supervirtuoso Martha Argerich in for her Southeast Asian debut. According to Artistic Director Lionel Choi, this was the first time La Martha had performed in Asia and Australia outside of her Japanese and Korean dates. This would be the musical equivalent the historic Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un summit in Singapore, also held within the same days. 

The first concert on Monday 11 June featured La Martha and Argentine pianist-conductor in 4-hand piano music. The second concert on 13 June had both pianists performing piano concertos with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. For many, that was certainly the highlight of the festival.

Dario Ntaca first performed Mozart's Piano Concerto No.17,
directing the orchestra from the keyboard.
It was a very musical reading, and was accorded
much polite and receptive applause.
The main event, however, was
Martha Argerich performing Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.3,
with Ntaca conducting from the podium
Martha Argerich is still a phenomenal pianist,
even for someone 77 years old. 
It was incredible with what she could still do with
her fingers in this demanding showpiece.
Turning back the clock, the performance had the
same vehemence and spirit as her famous recording
with Claudio Abbado from the 1960s.
She's still got that mojo,
and the audience loved every bit of it.
She loved the audience too.
Trying to pluck a rose for concertmaster Lynnette Seah
was the most difficult thing she did all night!
La Martha obliged with two encores.
First was Scarlatti's treacherous Sonata in D minor,
K.141 also known as the "Guitar" because of
its repeated notes and crossing of hands. 
The second encore was
Debussy's La Soirée dans Grenade from Estampes.
It was truly a memorable evening which
many will never forget for years to come.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, June 2018)

Harmonia Mundi 902299 / ****1/2

In a musical experiential experiment not often conducted, this very interesting recording has Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov performing on four different pianos from different periods of the instrument's storied history. His selections aptly reflect the most virtuosic works written at a period close to each instrument's construction, thus allowing the listener to appreciate what each would have sounded like during the day.

Opening with Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy on an Alois Graf fortepiano (1828), Melnikov brings a barnstorming yet musical approach to a composer not generally known for his technical virtuosity. The sound is mellow and soft-edged, which is also appropriate for Chopin's 12 Études Op.10, where the requisite prestidigitation seems completely natural on an Erard grand piano (1837).

For Liszt's Reminiscences de Don Juan, Melnikov turns to a Bösendorfer (1875), where he piles on multitudes of the octaves and chords without apology. The piano withstands everything thrown at it. Finally, Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrushka is heard on a modern Steinway D (2014), which is what we enjoy in concert halls all round the world today. A historical tour of keyboards has rarely sounded this enlightening.  

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

MARTHA ARGERICH & DARIO NTACA IN RECITAL / 25th Singapore International Piano Festival / Review

25th Singapore International Piano Festival
Esplanade Concert Hall
Monday (11 June 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 June 2018 with the title "Piano legend's outsized personality wins crowd over".

While the nation was being occupied by hype surrounding Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's peace summit, music lovers here knew what was really important: Argentine pianist Martha Argerich's debut in Singapore, undoubtedly the highlight of the 25th Singapore International Piano Festival.

As Argerich no longer performs solo recitals, audiences are content with her presence in chamber music and duo recitals. Her piano duo partners have included Stephen Kovacevich, Nelson Freire, Alexandre Rabinovitch and Daniel Barenboim, and her Singapore recital was to feature Argentine conductor-pianist Dario Ntaca in tandem.

Those expecting a femme fatale oozing musical ecstasy and exotic allure as suggested by her record-cover photographs over the decades might have been underwhelmed by the appearance of a 77-year-old grandmother with a slightly stooped posture taking the stage. But legends do not just fade, they prefer to go out with a big bang.

Fireworks were not first order of the day, as the opening two works were slow and quiet. Ntaca, helming the first piano part, opened with the flute solo of Debussy's Prelude to The Afternoon of the Faun. It was still and haunting, replied by Argerich on second piano with harp-like arpeggios. The atmosphere was languid and laid-back from the outset, and one could be excused for nodding off.

Next was Schubert's Rondo in A major (D.951) for four hands on a single piano. This was pure hausmusik, written for home entertainment by friends and family. Congenial to a fault, the work exuded an easy drawing room charm, gratefully lapped up by both pianists and shared by the near full-house.

Far more challenging was Mozart's Sonata in D major for two pianos (K.448), which required greater expertise. There are certainly more notes, and although they started and ended together, there was a niggling sense that the duo had not lived long with the work together. There were many lovely moments, but imagine what a long-time and dedicated piano duo could do more with this work.   

For the second half, Argerich took over the primo role. Brahms's Haydn Variations (based on the St. Anthony Chorale) started strongly, with an orchestral feel to the sound production. The good work however petered out in the final variation, a passacaglia, where over-pedalling was used to mask an overall messiness.

Fortunately there was Rachmaninov's warhorse Second Suite to save the day. Both pianists raced off like thoroughbreds in the opening Alla Marcia. This breathlessness continued into the vertiginous Waltz, where the spellbinding speed still continues to amaze. The Romance offered enough time to smell the roses before rapturously arriving at the final Tarantella. Here one really got to savour up close Argerich's brilliant fingerwork, which was closely matched by Ntaca.

There were two encores, a less than totally inspiring Debussy's En Bateau (Petite Suite) and a reprise of the brilliant Rachmaninov Waltz. Ultimately it was Argerich's reputation, outsized personality and largesse that won the crowd over.    

This little girl can tell her grandchildren
she watched the great Martha Argerich perform.
Everybody wants to look like La Martha,
especially the piano teachers.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

DANG THAI SON Piano Recital / 25th Singapore International Piano Festival / Review

DANG THAI SON Piano Recital
25th Singapore International Piano Festival
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (10 June 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 12 June 2018 with the title "Heartfelt piano pieces with a singing quality".

Of the six artists showcased in this year's Singapore International Piano Festival (SIPF), only one had performed in Singapore previously. Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai Son, first prizewinner of the 1980 Chopin International Piano Competition, played a solo recital in 1990 and more recently partnered the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in concertos by Chopin and Grieg in 2010 and 2011.

His SIPF debut presented music close to his heart, works that bring out a singing quality, coloured by no little pathos. Schubert's Allegretto in C minor, the opener, was such a piece. An innate feeling of pensiveness was immediately brought out in its bare plaint with notes a parallel octave apart. It even sounded slow despite its “a little less fast” designation, but never plodded.

The shifts from minor to major key provided some variation, but the heartfelt grief was only dispelled by Schubert's 12 German Dances (D.790). These landler or little three-quarter time dances are homespun and rustic, but would later gain respectability as waltzes by Chopin, Brahms, Liszt and most notably Johann Strauss' family. Dang's performance was lively and true to the music's gift of simplicity.

Chopin had to be on the programme, and Dang obliged with the Barcarolle Op.60 and Second Scherzo Op.31, two very well-contrasted works. The Venetian gondolier's song revealed a loving cantabile accompanied by a gently rocking rhythm, while in the latter, quickfire responses and volcanic volatility. Even in the loudest of passages, Dang never resorted to banging in order to project. Such is the mark of true musicianship.

Another quality is the curiosity to explore less well-trodden repertoire. To this end, Dang included five short pieces by pianist-composer Ignace Paderewski, the supervirtuoso and latter-day popstar who became Poland's prime minister after the First World War. The influence of Chopin was inescapable in the Melodie and Legend (from Op.16), and the Krakowiak (from Op.5), a folkdance related to the better known mazurka.

Salon charm exuded in the playing, even if these were not top-drawer material. Ten-year-olds would have mustered the ability of playing Paderewski's Menuet Antique in G major (Op.14 No.1) but they would certainly not possess Dang's suaveness or svelteness. Best of all is the Nocturne in B flat major (Op.16 No.4), a gem of understated beauty that could not have sounded more beautiful.

Franz Liszt's Reminiscences de Norma, based on themes from Vincenzo Bellini's bel canto opera Norma, closed the programme proper. It might have appeared that Dang was holding back all this while, before letting loose on this outsized transcription-paraphrase. Less vulgar than the same composer's Reminiscences de Don Juan, it nevertheless proved a showstopper in Dang's magisterial control and finely-honed fingers.

Again he made the instrument sing, but also supplied the high octane fuel to make this virtuoso vehicle work. Both his two encores were by Chopin, naturally. The Waltz in A minor (Op.34 No.2) and Mazurka in F minor (Op.7 No.3) were a soothing balm for the ears. 

Monday, 11 June 2018

JEREMY DENK Piano Recital / 25th Singapore International Piano Festival / Review

JEREMY DENK Piano Recital
25th Singapore International Piano Festival
Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday (9 June 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 June 2018 with the title "Variations take centrestage".

On the Singapore International Piano Festival's third evening, American pianist Jeremy Denk presented a recital centred on the theme of variations. Although he dropped Brahms' Schumann Variations at the eleventh hour, its replacement, Mozart's Rondo in A minor (K.511) also had the feel of variations taking place.

In his preamble, Denk explained that all the works had a sense of circularity and the idea of returning in common. Thus the sad, desolate theme of the Mozart doing its rounds had an added resonance. Utter clarity and crystalline sonorities characterised this masterpiece of private and  intimate tragedy.

Even if the music ventured off at a tangent on some metaphysical journey, it always returned home to a familiar, and almost comfortable, feeling of bleakness. Denk's elegant and perfectly conceived reading did this slowly pulsing and gently throbbing movement full justice.   

Classicism transitioned to romanticism for Beethoven's Sonata No.30 in E major (Op.109), a late work that exhibited extremes of dynamics and quasi-improvisational episodes in between. The first two movements contrasted dreamy sentimentality with violent flailings, trenchantly brought out by Denk before settling into the final movement's Theme and Variations.

The serene theme, a lovely chorale in E major, went through myriad transformation - including some almost jazzy asides - before arriving back at that rock of reassuring stability. This schema writ large would return in the second half, in the form of J.S.Bach's Goldberg Variations.

This Magnum Opus of the keyboard repertoire, once considered arcane and nigh unplayable, has never been more popular among audiences than the present. An Aria in G major is subjected to 30 variations, every third one being a canon, in what is the mathematician-musician's dream.

Even the variations are not true variations of the Aria in the usual sense, but built upon the sequence of bass notes on the left hand. Instead of a strait-jacket, this offered an independence of compositional thought which Bach fully exploited. So did Denk, who offered a nuanced and often brilliant performance that had not a dull moment.

His breezy reading clocked in one minute short of an hour. This was achieved by playing the Aria in a goodly pace, no protractedness for its own sake, and judiciously omitting repeats for many variations. Each half of 15 variations were perfectly balanced and poised.

Ornamentations were kept to the minimum, but he relished in the show-boating aspects of faster numbers, flaunting it like a consummate jazzman. Ultimately the respect shown to the slower variations, particularly No.25 in G minor (known as the Black Pearl), sealed the deal, leading back to the luminous Aria without further fuss or fancy.

There was a standing ovation, to which he reciprocated with another gem in G major, the slow movement from Mozart's Sonata Facile in C major (K.545). Closing with an uproarious improvisation on Wagner's Pilgrim's Chorus from Tannhäuser by 1940s stride pianist Donald Lambert, Denk brought down the house.