Thursday, 14 February 2019

CD Review (The Straits Times, February 2019)

Carles & Sofia, Piano Duo
KNS Classical A/069 / *****

It might appear odd to encounter a recording of Johannes Brahms’ Lieder (German art songs) arranged for four hands on the piano. But why not? 

In actual fact, much of the German composer’s orchestra music (all four symphonies, overtures and serenades), chamber music (quartets and quintets) and even his German Requiem exist in versions for piano four hands by his own hand. Thus this selection of 18 songs, marvellously arranged by German doctor-turned-composer Christoph Ewers, comes across as wonderfully idiomatic.

Nothing sounds overblown or over-projected. The often simple melodic lines are lovingly preserved while the rich accompaniment, so characteristic of Brahms himself, do not overwhelm. 

There are some familiar numbers, including the tender Cradle Song (Op.49 No.4), Wie Melodien Zieht Es Mir (Op.105 No.1, famously quoted in the Second Violin Sonata) and the Two Songs for voice, viola and piano (Op.91). The autumnal Four Serious Songs (Op.121) provide for a more sober but sublime conclusion. 

The Catalan duo of Carles Lama and Sofia Cabruja are ever-sensitive to details and nuances, and words are hardly missed in this utterly delightful hour-long recital.  

Monday, 4 February 2019

MASAAKI SUZUKI & J.S.BACH / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra
Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (2 February 2019)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 February 2019 with the title "An evening of joyful Bach music".

The baroque music revolution in Singapore is well and truly underway. Recent concerts by Red Dot Baroque, re:Sound and J.S.Bach’s The Art Of Fugue have established a definite trend. Another all-Bach concert with the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra conducted by renowned baroque specialist Masaaki Suzuki, founder of Bach Collegium Japan, was the icing on a well-baked cake.

Instrumental concertos and choral music, a motet and a cantata, were on this well-conceived programme. Opening was Keyboard Concerto in D minor (BWV.1052), Bach’s longest, with young harpsichordist Mervyn Lee helming the demanding solo. His was a confident reading, weaving between being an ensemble member and exerting himself in solo passages.  

The string accompaniment led by guest concertmaster Ryo Terakado, numbering only 12 players, ensured a light and transparent texture throughout. Thus Lee’s ornate figurations in the slow movement and the finale’s virtuosic flourishes came through very well.

The other concertante work was the Concerto in C minor for Violin and Oboe (BWV.1060a), where Terakado and guest oboist Masamitsu San’nomiya, both permament members of the Bach Collegium Japan and highly experienced soloists, held sway. The interplay between both players, intricate and intimate, was excellent throughout.

Both choral works performed were sacred in inspiration and content. The religious message in the motet Jesu, Meine Freud (Jesus, My Joy BWV.227) was unmistakeable: the Saviour protects, vanquishes death and ultimately sparks joy. The 16-member chorus from the Conservatory, with four singers a part including tenor Alan Bennett (head of voice studies), sung like they meant every word.

Chorales were delivered with conviction, while the fugue Ihr Aber Seid Night Fleischlich (But Ye Are Not In The Flesh) delighted in its busy counterpoint. In the brief trios Denn Das Gesetz Des Geistes (For The Spirit Of The Law) and So Aber Christus In Euch Ist (And Of Christ Be In You), the soloists were somewhat exposed but did the best to hold their own.

In the cantata Mit Fried Und Freude Ich Fahr Dahin (With Peace And Joy I Depart, BWV.125), the feeling of accomplishment was even greater. In this journey from contrition to deliverance, obliggato parts from oboist San’nomiya and guest flautist Liliko Maeda were a delight, while a trio of young vocalists had the opportunity to shine.

Alto Lu Pei-Yun radiated true gravitas in the aria Ich Will Auch Mit Gebrochnen Augen (Even With Broken Eyes), a prayer of submission, while baritone Lim Jing Jie reaffirmed that one need not fear death in O Wunder, Dass Ein Herz (How Wondrous That A Heart). In the duet Ein Unbegreiflich Licht (An Unfathomable Light), Lim and tenor Jong Woo were well matched in their utterance that “He who believes shall be blessed”.

The final chorus Er Ist Das Heil (He Is The Salvation) came all too soon but Suzuki and his charges  totally justified the cantata’s exhortation, sending an appreciative audience home in peace and joy.    

Bach-maniacs come together!

Thursday, 31 January 2019

CD Review (The Straits Times, January 2019)

Gamma Majoris Ensemble
Champs Hill Records 138 / ****1/2

Imagine a salon in turn-of-the-century Moscow or Saint Petersburg, just before the Great War. This 77-minute album showcases music likely to be enjoyed by the moneyed class or bourgeoisie during those troubled fin-de-siecle times. 

The music comprises Russian art songs or “romances” by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, arranged and performed by Gamma Majoris Ensemble, four young Russians comprising soprano Anastasia Prokofieva, pianist Yulia Chaplina, violinist Ksenia Berezina and cellist Alisa Liubarskaya.

Of the 25 tracks, twelve are sung accompanied by various combinations of instruments, including Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, By An Open Window, It Was In Early Spring and On This Moonlit Night. His well-known None But The Lonely Heart and Amid The Noise Of The Ball surprisingly take the form for cello and piano duo only. For piano solo, Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne in F major, Meditation and Un Poco Di Chopin make lovely interludes.

Rachmaninov accounts for just six numbers, including songs Before My Window, Do Not Sing, My Beauty, They Answered and the violin showpiece Gypsy Dance from the early opera Aleko, but these merge seamlessly with Tchaikovsky’s typically bittersweet and melancholic idiom. Performed with much feeling and unmistaken sense of nostalgia, this collection could have been called From Russia With Love.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019



Several years ago, I lamented that Singapore had held more Formula One Grand Prix events than international music competitions. To date, Singapore has had two international violin competitions (the Singapore International Violin Competition, held in 2015 and 2018), much trumpeted events organised by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and involving Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Esplanade and the National Arts Council, pretty much the heavy machinery of the local arts scene.

Quietly and without any fanfare, an entity called the Singapore International Piano Competition 2019 appeared on the horizon. I was alerted to it by the Alink-Argerich Foundation (AAF) website, and also checked out its own webpage. Organised by the Global International Musicians Association (GIMA) based in mainland China, it appeared to have few Singapore links other than the Singapore Nanyang Educational Research Centre, to which participants wired their entrance monies into a local bank account.

The four-day event which included the competition proper, masterclasses and recitals was held at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre. Participants ranged from children to adult professional pianists, and were judged by a jury which included several well-known concert pianists and well-regarded pedagogues from China, Hong Kong and the ASEAN nations.      

Sunday 26 January

The first day’s competition was held in three venues at the Conservatory. On an indolent Sunday afternoon, I wandered between these to get a sampling of piano artistry on display. It appeared that the older and more mature participants got to perform at the main Concert Hall, while children packed the cramped confines of the Stephen Baxter Recital Studio. A third category held at the Orchestral Hall saw performances limited to works of single composers.

The kiddies’ competition held little interest to me, appearing little more than an assembly line of cute, prettily attired children trotted out to perform very short pieces, watched (and filmed) by proud and concerned parents. This was more like those “music festivals” held in the name of outreach and community participation that commonly appear all over the continent. It took me almost a minute to realise that one little girl was banging out Edward MacDowell’s To A Wild Rose, so lacking was her guidance in phrasing and dynamics.

Slightly better were the Composer categories. I stumbled upon a rather good performance of the 1st movement from Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata by an older student, probably in his late teens or early twenties. That was the “Prokofiev Class” category, then came the “Tchaikovsky Class”, which comprised three girls playing Harvest Song (August) from The Seasons, each worst than the last. This was followed by the “Rachmaninov Class”, this time three girls playing the stormy Moment Musical No.4 (Op.16 No.4). Suffice to say, there was more proficiency than actual inspiration or artistry.

The most time was spent at the Concert Hall. Here the students, mostly teenagers, performed short recitals, which consisted of one to three works. The standards were wildly variable, from very good to “American Idol” laughably bad. One unfortunate girl gave a perfunctory Chopin “Aeolian HarpEtude followed by a Bach Prelude and Fugue in the same key of A flat major. She got lost in the fugue, and after several attempts at re-entry, abandoned it outright. Awaiting her were the terrors of Chopin’s Second Scherzo, which needless to say was downright awful. I can imagine Simon Cowell saying, “You are the worst pianist I’ve ever heard”.

Saving the day were two Singaporean youngsters. Jem Zhang Yifan (above) who gave a very polished account of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, appearing absolutely fearless in its finger-twisting cadenzas, crunching chords and coruscating octaves. Just as good was Loh Peiyi (below) in Chopin’s Ballade No.2 in F major. She clearly understood its sharp contrasts of placidity and tempestuousness, and had the fingers to make it happen.

The young man who had earlier impressed in the “Prokofiev Class” (above) now performed all three movements of the entire Seventh Sonata. Here was a real performance, one of blood and guts, peaks and troughs. He was not going through the motions but actually living out the music’s angst, toils and excesses. He would certainly be ready to take part in some major competition.

Other than in the kiddy category, the competition was sparsely attended. The players received hardly any applause, deserved or otherwise, and some segments of the audience were just terrible. One father stormed into the hall chasing after an errant son, creating a terrible ruckus, oblivious to the Mozart Rondo in A minor (the quiet one) being performed. And he was shouted at by an official before he piped down. Whoever said piano recitals were not dramatic?

As crowded and noisy as a Shenzhen marketplace.

Monday 28 January

The venue was now the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, where the concert artist category of the competition was held. I only had time to attend the Gala Recital by Chinese pianist Jin Ju, a member of the competition jury. Based in Imola (Italy), she had been a 3rd prizewinner at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition before the Gergiev years. That alone seemed like a guarantee of quality, and she did not disappoint.

In an all-Chopin recital, she opened with six Mazurkas (Op.56 and 63), revealing a fine touch supported by an ever-present pulse in these short folk dances in three-quarter time. Using pedal sparingly, her right hand filigree was crystal-clear, and when more pedalling was needed, the rustic drones came out sonorously. Tempos got a whole lot faster in the three Waltzes of Op.64, which included the ubiquitous “Minute” Waltz, which ironically does not often get heard in recitals. The petit chien chasing its own tail has hardly been better portrayed in this swift and slick reading. The first half closed with the Barcarolle Op.60, with its cantabile melody gloriously relived.

The second half’s Third Sonata in B minor (Op.58) was a tour de force. Often played to death, this warhorse however received a new lease of life in Ju’s hands. Her technique was totally secure, and yet she brought out the opening movement’s second subject with disarming beauty. The etude-like scherzo flew like the wind, while the slow movement’s gravitas provided the sonata’s spiritual heart. The rondo finale was thrillingly built-up, culminating in the most thunderous of finishes. In short, this was an electrifying performance where true technical virtuosity was unfailingly in service of the music.

There were three encores, the posthumous Nocturne in C sharp minor, its seamless beauty contrasted with the ferocious triplet runs of the Étude in G sharp minor (Op.25 No.6). The recital closed dramatically with the Prélude in D minor (Op.28 No.24), the pianistic equivalent of a fireworks display. If Ju has been hailed as the “Argerich of the East”, that is not far from the truth.     

Parents doing what proud parents do best:
photographing and filming their kids!

Tuesday 29 January

Work had prevented me from attending much of the competition and recitals of the preceding two days, thus my assessment of the pianistic goings-on thus far have been unfortunately incomplete. The final evening’s prize-giving ceremony and recital more than adequately provided the gaping lacunae of my experience of the competition.

Former Cliburn laureate Wang Xiaohan
is the competition Artistic Director.

There was the usual speech-giving, award presentations and obligatory photograph-taking which distended the event to nearly three-and-a-half hours. Thankfully the music made up for it. There were performances from some of the jury members, and more importantly the prize-winners themselves. Jury members Raymond Young and Hui Ling (both from Hong Kong) were delightful in all four movements from Debussy’s Petite Suite, while Singapore-based Elaine Wu Yili (below), in her late 80s, gave a feisty reading of the Schumann-Liszt Widmung, undimmed by age or frailty.  

From the new generation of young pianists, there were very assured performances of Kabalevsky, Liszt, Chopin, Kapustin and Carl Vine. The last came from the most prodigious of youngsters, Xu Leyu, who showed that extreme youth was no impediment to extreme virtuosity. She had the fiendishly difficult music down pat, toying with it as if it were playdough. One wonders what she would accomplish in a few years’ time.      

Jem Zhang Yifan in Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No.2.
Chen Zhenxi with the finale of Kabalevsky's Third Sonata.
A young Thai girl impressed with two short pieces
while playing with a pedal extension.
The prodigious Xu Leyu in
Carl Vine's First Sonata 2nd movement.
Loh Peiyi in Chopin's Second Ballade.
More fireworks in a Kapustin Etude
from Op.40 by Luo Jie.

The final three performances came from the winners of the Concert Artist category of the competition, the most senior category and the crème de la crème. 20th century music was on the menu, and no prisoners were taken in works like the Fugue from Samuel Barber’s Sonata, Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata and Ravel’s La Valse. These were close to flawless performances, exactly to be expected in a competition of international stature.

Winners of the Concert Artist category
walk home with their well-deserved cheques.
3rd Prize: Chung Hok Chun (Hong Kong)
in Samuel Barber's Sonata: 4th movement.
2nd Prize: Hsu Ting-Chia (Taiwan)
in Scriabin's Sonata No.5
1st Prize: Liu Ziyu (China)
in Ravel's La Valse.
I foresee the Singapore International Piano Competition to be a fixture in the Singapore arts calendar for years to come. Although it is organised outside of the island-state, it has the support of local partners and sponsors. For it to grow, it needs to further collaborate with local educational institutions such as the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and/or Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, the National Arts Council and a local professional orchestra in order to have a piano concerto grand finale. With all other organisational structures in place, the SIPC can hopefully stand tall alongside the Singapore International Violin Competition. The growing arts scene in Singapore deserves nothing less. 

Monday, 28 January 2019


It seemed only a short while ago when Lan Shui succeeded Choo Hoey as the Music Director of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. In actual fact, that was back in 1997, long before there was such a thing as Esplanade or a music conservatory in Singapore.

On Saturday 26 January 2019, Lan Shui conducted his final concert with the SSO. The work was Mahler's Second Symphony, or the Resurrection Symphony, symbolic in the sense that farewell is not a goodbye, but the birth of a new future - a resurrection, so to speak. 

Lan, as he is affectionately known by many, was responsible for turning Choo Hoey's already-considerable creation into a truly world-class symphony orchestra. Now that the SSO has a season that rivals the top orchestras of the world is not an accident, but one of design, built on vision, hard work, perseverance and artistic genius.   

The concert, second of a pair, could well be one of the most memorable concerts ever given in Esplanade. It featured the full orchestra and many extras, the combined choirs that formed the Singapore Symphony Chorus and soloists soprano Miah Persson and alto Anna Larsson.  It had many heart-wrenching moments, not least in the finale's march to the abyss and then the proclamation of Klopstock's Auferstehung, the resurrection and beginning of a new life. There was a prolonged standing ovation, and chorus of bravos. There were tears of sadness, and tears of joy.

On that evening, Maestro Lan Shui was conferred the title of SSO's first ever Conductor Laureate, and one eagerly looks forward to his next phase of musical life with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Thank you, Lan. We will miss you but there will be great joy when you next return.  

SSO Chairman Goh Yew Lin
introduces the new SSO Conductor Laureate.

One will not find a more spontaneous standing ovation.
Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich and
Bass Principal Guennadi Mouzyka.
Maestro Lan Shui has always been a hit with the ladies,
here with Culture Minister Grace Fu et al.
Mister and Missus Lan Shui
SSC Three Tenors!