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. 

Monday, 14 October 2019

HEIRLOOMS / The Teng Ensemble / Review

The Teng Ensemble
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (11 October 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 October 2019 with the title "Chinese immigrant music given a fresh take".

What do immigrants from China do when they transplant themselves thousands of miles from their homeland to settle in Southeast Asia?  They bring along their musical cultures, mostly through oral tradition, create their own instruments, and pass these down to succeeding generations. All in the hope that younger ones will be receptive. That is how musical heritage survives, or risks being forgotten altogether.

Over four years, The Teng Ensemble has interviewed and recorded musical practitioners whose forebears arrived by sea from China’s southern provinces, namely Fujian (Hokkien), Chaozhou (Teochew) and Guangdong (Canton). Heirlooms is the 70-minute concert of music derived from these traditions, produced by Bang Wenfu and Joel Nah, accompanied by a documentary film directed by Koo Chia Meng.

Imagine the metamorphosis of music, through displacements in time and space, with the imbibing of modern popular culture, and one gets an idea of the music heard. Eight short works by New York-based Malaysia-born composer Chow JunYi were presented, each with roots in pre-existing music but transformed into something fresh out from the 21st century.

The original creators will not recognise these slicked-up efforts, but hopefully some of the creator spirit remains. It was only appropriate that Teng Ensemble founder Samuel Wong gave a short preamble before opening the first piece, Tracing, with his nanpa solo. Lovebirds Singing In Harmony by Zhuo Sheng Xiang and late Cultural Medallion recipient Teng Mah Seng was the basis for this flight of fantasy. One interviewee on film quipped that Nanyin music initially felt like Chinese funeral dirges, but this updated take and Xin Zao Beh, a re-imagination of Nanyin classic Eight Horses, would completely change the script.

With house-lights dimmed to near darkness, and stage-lights taking over to illuminate soloists, the romp began. Allying Wong were eight players, equally spiffy in their designer suite, plying traditional Chinese (erhu, sheng, pipa, ruan and guzheng) and modern instruments (gehu or cello, keyboard, electric guitar and electronics).

Localised versions of certain instruments were also employed, including Cantonese gaohu and qinqin, Teochew zheng and pipa, with the intent that some authenticity was being preserved. The music was amplified and with projected visuals and strobe-lights, everything took on a psychedelic edge.  

Lovers of Cantonese music will recognise Chen Peixun’s Autumn Moon Over The Calm Lake and Yan Laolie’s Han Tian Lei (Thunder In Drought) in the mash-up titled Hang Gai. There was also a nod to film music with The General's Command (a melody later used in Once Upon A Time In China) incorporated into Contemporary. Here, a recording of drums and temple gongs from the Lao Sai Tao Yuan Teochew Opera Troupe was included into the mix.

There was also a tribute to the late Yeo How Jiang, a master of Waijiang (scholar music) and Teochew music, who was recorded and immortalised in Memoir. With the final work Far From Home, using four Teochew melodies, Teng Ensemble showed that the past is still relevant, if anything to inform the future.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

CD Review (The Straits Times, October 2019)

Hello Stage 010 / ****1/2

With this album, Jo Anne Sukumaran became the first Singaporean bassoonist to record a solo recital on compact disc. An alumnus of the Singapore Youth Orchestra, she completed her studies in Switzerland before pursuing a free-lance career as solo, chamber and orchestral bassoonist. Her programme is predominantly French but eclectic in its variety. She opens with Philippe Hersant’s Niggun, an unaccompanied Hasidic Hebrew song that showcases the bassoon’s wide tonal and emotional range.

This work also has spiritual and aesthetic connections with two of Spaniard Manuel de Falla’s Popular Spanish Songs – Asturiana and Nana – which are soothing and tender in expression, and the titular The Night Garden by Sukumaran and tabla player Sanjay Kansa Banik. The latter is a short improvisation accompanied by tanpura based on two ragas that explore mysteries of the night and Sukumaran’s own Indian heritage.

In between are Camille Saint-Saens’s Bassoon Sonata (Op.168), a late work exploiting the bassoon’s avuncular and playful character. Charles Koechlin’s Three Pieces (Op.34), Alexandre Tansman’s Sonatina and Norwegian bassonist Robert Ronnes’ Reflexion are virtuosic yet soulful additions, sensitively accompanied by pianist Kseniia Vokhmianina. This is a probing and enjoyable album, highlights of which are relived by Jo Anne and her friends in recital at Esplanade Recital Studio at 7.30 pm on Sunday 20 October 2019. Tickets are available at Peatix.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

PINNACLES OF ROMANTICISM / Take 5 Piano Quintet / Review

Take 5 Piano Quintet
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (29 September 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 October 2019 with the title "Take 5's take on Romanticism may be this year's top chamber concert".

Take 5, Singapore’s premier piano quintet, has now completed fifteen concerts in its exploration of the piano quintet (piano with string quartet) repertoire. After exhausting the popular and familiar favourites, the group has turned to the arcane territories of Philipp Scharwenka and Sergei Taneyev.

Both composers operated at the tail end of musical Romanticism, with their piano quintets arriving in 1910-11, just a couple of years before Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring was unleashed to the unsuspecting world. Both were academics who stoutly clung to past traditions, tenaciously defending their ground as modernism took over and irrevocably transformed the musical landscape.

The Pole Philipp Scharwenka (1847-1917) was the elder brother of pianist-composer Xaver Scharwenka, best remembered for his Polish Dances and piano concertos. His half-hour long Quintet in B minor, while maintaining a front of Teutonic objectivity and density, smouldered with Slavic passion and darkness. This was apparent in the unison voices of its opening, oozing pathos in the minor key before becoming slightly more optimistic in its second subject.

The lovely slow movement could be described a “Romance” with pianist Lim Yan’s calming opening answered by Chan Wei Shing’s cello plaint. With the other string players joining in, this love letter soon took off, fraught with tenderness and angst in equal measure. After a slow introduction, the finale became an exciting romp, with no let up in tension and energy.

The Russian Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915) was one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous students. His Quintet in G minor – in four movements and lasting some 45 minutes – could at least be called ambitious. Pianist Lim, also playing a curatorial role within the quintet, gave a short preamble to this sprawling work. Furnishing short examples and providing contexts, he struck a good balance between being theoretical and intellectual.

Taneyev was no dyed-in-the-wool nationalist, but the Russianess of his music still soaked through. The first movement’s opening theme, mournful and lugubrious, was worn heart-on-sleeve but tinged with Wagnerian harmonic ambiguities. A contrasting second theme, essentially a modified inversion of the first, radiated more light. The tense interplay between these two, for best part of the movement’s 20 minutes, was a catharsis of sorts.

As a change of tack, the scintillating Scherzo spun off sparks and tinsels ever so effortlessly, while the slow movement’s passacaglia was a plodding procession over a bass rhythm established by the cello. Despite the longueurs, the quintet showed little sign of toil or weariness.

The finale was skittish and filled with fantasy, and themes from the opening movement returned at a fast and furious pace. There was a moment of respite when Foo Say Ming’s violin soared to stratospheric heights, before a glorious reprise of the work’s most memorable melody. With violinist Lim Shue Churn and violist Chan Yoong-Han completing this “mighty handful”, Take 5’s take might just be this year’s top chamber concert. 

Monday, 30 September 2019

PRESIDENT'S YOUNG PERFORMERS CONCERT / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (27 September 2019) 

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 September 2019 with the title "Young guitarist on top of his game".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s President’s Young Performers Concerts have been an annual showcase of local talent in concerto performances since the 1990s. The series has spanned tenures of four presidents since Ong Teng Cheong, featuring the likes of pianists Shane Thio, Lim Yan and Abigail Sin, violinists Lee Huei Min and Chan Yoong Han, and even a saxophonist, Samuel Phua. Kevin Loh is the first guitarist to appear on this platform, although he has previously performed with the orchestra.

His concerto was no big surprise: Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, surely the most performed and recorded guitar concerto of all time. While not presenting new insights, he gave a confident and big-hearted account of this familiar favourite. But how many people actually know its fast outer movements?

There was the intimate feeling of chamber music as Loh worked well with the orchestra, which relied mostly on strings and woodwinds in its narrative. Whether strumming out chords or negotiating tricky passage work, Loh was on top of his game. In the famous Adagio, he first accompanied Elaine Yeo’s sensuous cor anglais solo and then ventured out on his own. His sonorous mastery of the guitar’s lower registers was also a delight, sounding like some baritone majo (or Spanish gentleman) in love.  

The finale that followed erupted with festive colour, helped by the brass, especially the trumpets. Prolonged applause meant an encore, with Paraguayan guitarist-composer Agustin Barrios Mangore’s Waltz in G major (Op.8 No.4) being Loh’s perfect icing on the cake.

To balance the familiarity of Rodrigo, the concert led by SSO Associate Conductor Joshua Tan included two less familiar works. Opening the evening was Mendelssohn’s Die Schöne Melusine Overture, programme music on the legend of a two-tailed mermaid falling in love. Intricate woodwind passages and weepy strings painted a watery realm for an ill-fated romance to blossom, and eventually expire beneath the waves.

Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Mozart, receiving its Singapore premiere, concluded the concert. The German composer, front-liner of the “back-to-Bach movement”, was responsible for some impossibly turgid pot-boilers, but this was thankfully not one of those. Based on the 1st movement theme from  Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A major (K.331, the one with the Turkish Rondo), the variations were well-crafted but difficult to pull off.

One might regard this as an expanded version of Brahms’ Haydn Variations, as there were more than a few similarities. The theme itself was plainly stated, with excellent woodwinds to thank again, but the variations got increasingly florid while maintaining a basic outline.

Kudos go to both conductor and orchestra for keeping the variations tautly strung, without allowing instrumental ornaments and details to complicate matters. There were even stretches of Straussian opulence and beauty, all coming before the massive fugal finale and the theme’s glorious re-entry. This could have been one big contrapuntal bore, but it simply was not to be.

Concert photographs by the kind courtesy of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

CD Review (The Straits Times, September 2019)

Deutsche Grammophon 479 8109 1 / ***

In his latest album, Chinese piano phenom Lang Lang has gone back to basics, playing pieces he learnt as a child. There are some no-brainers which open this 72 minute anthology, such as J.S.Bach’s Prelude in C major from Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier and Beethoven’s immortal Für Elise. He plays these easy pieces with simplicity and finesse.

However in the very familiar 1st movement of Mozart’s Sonata Facile in C major (K.545), he attempts some ornamentations which get annoying on repeated listening. Debussy’s Clair de lune comes across as being just too slow, while Tekla  Bardazewska-Baranowska’s The Maiden’s Prayer sounds banal whoever is playing. Surely, Mozart’s Variations on Ah, vous dirai-je Maman (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) is beyond the technique of piano beginners, as is Mendelssohn’s Spinning Song and Debussy’s Gradus Ad Parnassum (Children’s Corner Suite).

Surely he would not have known of pieces by Max Richter, Yann Tiersen or Ryuichi Sakamoto growing up in Shenyang, but the Japanese film composer’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence receives a grandstanding rendition.

The Super Deluxe edition of this album runs onto two discs and includes a handsome hardcover book of scores and personal insights, with some 29 pieces in all. This is not a terrible album, but one cannot help feel it could have been much better.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

DING YI CHINESE CHAMBER MUSIC FESTIVAL / Ding Yi Music Company et al / Review

3peoplemusic / Tang Family Music Ensemble
Ding Yi Music Company
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday & Sunday 
(14 & 15 September 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 September 2019 with the title "A great variety of Chinese chamber music".

Trust Ding Yi Music Company to preach the gospel of Chinese instrumental music by organising its own international chamber music festival. Now in its fourth edition, the Ding Yi Chamber Music Festival 2019 ran over three days, featuring ensembles from Canada, Taiwan and China.

The second and third evenings showcased two very different groups, confirming that traditional Chinese chamber music is more heterogeneous than one imagined. 3Peoplemusic, a Taiwanese trio of Jen Chung (dizi), Kuo Min-chin (guzheng) and Pan I-tung (zhongruan), performed original compositions and arrangements that had a popular and upbeat feel.

Dizi and xiao carried carried the melodic interest, with guzheng and zhongruan providing accompaniment and counter-melodies. The strummed ruan oftrn simulated a guitar’s rhythmic and percussive thrust. In Luxury and Dissipation, a sense of improvisation presided over a ground bass that relived happy revelry on Chinese new year’s eve.  

Popular melodies like Molihua and Jackdaws Playing In The Water were woven into the fabric of Chung’s Slowly Rowing On Jasmine Waves and Kuo’s Three Ducks Communing. The most modern piece was Pan’s Ink Immersion, where each instrument posed as actors in a play with soliloquys of their own.

Three members of Ding Yi Music Company and conductor Quek Ling Kiong joined the threesome in Chua Jon Lin’s Flowers, a brief work stringing together motifs from 15 flower-inspired songs into a garland. 3peoplemusic’s encore was Taiwanese hit Tian Hei Hei (Dark Sky), styled in its own inimitable way.  

The festival was rounded up by Shanghai’s Tang Family Music Ensemble. With a performing tradition spanning eight generations, its seven members included four siblings in their seventies and eighties. Jiangnan shizhu (silk and bamboo music), involving bowed and plucked strings (silk) and blown dizi and sheng (bamboo), was their speciality.

There is much satisfaction to be had in heterophony, with different instruments playing in unison but coloured by distinct timbres. In the traditional Fan Wan Gong and Auspicious Cloud, melodic lines stood out with clarity and vividness. In two pieces based on the classic Old Six Beats, an upping in tempo also meant more elaborate ornamentations.

Elder spokesperson of the Tang clan, Tang Liang Xing brought out a surfeit of emotions on his pipa in Thinking Of An Old Friend and Drunk. In concertante works, sheng soloist Weng Zhen Fa waxed lyrical in Yan Haideng’s Tunes Of Shanxi Opera, while dizi soloist Zhan Yong Ming was joined by his student Ng Hsien Han in the double concerto Winds Of Affinity by Wang Chenwei. These were accompanied by Ding Yi’s ensemble conducted by Quek Ling Kiong.     

Two of Jiangnan’s most famous melodies, Xing Jie (Walking The Street) and Huan Le Ge (Song Of Joy) closed the colourful evening. The ensemble was joined by guests from the visiting groups and winners of the National Chinese Music Competition. Needless to add, the response was nothing short of overwhelming.