Wednesday, 20 September 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, September 2017)

Live From Lugano 2016
Warner Classics 0190295831653 (3 CDs) / *****

The Project Martha Argerich at the Lugano Festival came to a memorable close last year after 15 years of outstanding chamber music making by the then 75-year-old Argentine piano super-virtuoso and her partners, young and not-so-young. 

The highlight was her return to solo performance, represented by no less then Ravel's Gaspard De La Nuit, a thrilling reading which turns back the clock to her youthful prime in the 1970s. There is also Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major with the Orchestra della Svizerra Italiana conducted by Alexander Vedernikov, which bristles with verve and high octane vibes at every turn, as one expects from this jazz-influenced masterpiece.

New to her discography is Beethoven's Choral Fantasy (conducted by Diego Fasolis), a quasi-concerto with piano and voices which is preliminary sketch for the Ode To Joy finale of the Choral Symphony. Argerich is simply commanding in its improvisatory solo and rightly draws prolonged cheers. 

In two-piano repertoire, she is joined by Sergei Babayan in Mozart's Sonata in D major (K.448) and ex-husband Stephen Kovacevich in Debussy's Prelude To The Afternoon Of A Fawn, performances which excite merely by means of felicitous touches and knowing nuances. 

The balance of three well-filled discs includes music by Bach, Berg, Busoni, Brahms, Falla and Nisinman, the variety and quality of which amounts to signing off with a big bang.       

Thursday, 14 September 2017


To bring culture to the Singapore University of Technology & Design (SUTD) and otherwise culturally barren eastern side of Singapore, the university has organised a series of lunchtime recitals held on specially selected Wednesdays in the academic calendar. This series began last year, and I was fortunate to have been invited to perform in and attend these informal hour-long concerts held at the university's Campus Centre, a plaza with much traffic and not too bad acoustics.

The university was afforded the use of one of 50 Lang Lang grand pianos (provided by Steinway), which is now its proud property and boosted by a trolley system specially designed and created by SUTD students. 

Its latest concert featured talented SUTD students and guests from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory from the culturally rich western side of the island. East meets West, so they say, and it was curious to see three elegant young ladies from the Conservatory dressed to kill in their concert attire alongside two nerdy boys from the University who looked like they just woke up from an all-night tech and booze project. Anyway, music was the winner because all of them performed to the best of their abilities, and were roundly applauded by the audience for their efforts.

Here are some pictures taken at this groundbreaking event.    

The concert was opened by SUTD sophomore
Joshia Seam who performed Chopin's Ballade No.1
with much gusto and accuracy.
Prof Lim Seh Chun was a most engaging host
who did much research in providing the
"programme notes" to the performed works.
YST Conservatory's ace pianist Luong Khanh Nhi,
winner of the Piano Concerto Competition, gave a
solid reading of Brahms' Rhapsody Op.119 No.4.
Appreciating the concert were a number of past 

and present Singapore Symphony Orchestra directors.
So young yet so talented.
YST's Kim Soyoung performing the Prelude
from J.S.Bach's Cello Suite No.1.
A riveted audience at SUTD's Campus Centre.
The highlight of the concert:
The YST trio of pianist Luong, cellist Kim
and violinist Arisa Ikeda playing the 1st movement
from Schumann's Piano Trio No.1 Op.63
Ikeda and Luong in
Kreisler's Liebesleid (Love's Sorrow).
On her own, Ikeda performed
Paganini's Caprice No.9 "La Chasse".
All eyes and ears on the performances.
Closing dramatically was SUTD student
Chu Wy Ton who performed
his own original composition Snow,
Debussy's Arabesque No.1
and Gershwin's I Got Rhythm
Here are all the performers receiving
their accolades.


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory 
Orchestral Hall
Tuesday (12 September 2017)

The idea of pairing the piano music of Frederic Chopin and Alexander Scriabin is not new, having been previously showcased by Albert Tiu in recital and his brilliant recording Nocturnal Fantasies. In the recital by British pianist Anthony Hewitt (no relation to Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt), 12 Préludes (from Op.11) by the Russian Scriabin were juxtaposed with 16 Préludes (Op.28) by the Pole Chopin.

Scriabin was a devotee of Chopin and made no secret of it in his early piano works. Hence the “resemblance” half of this recital, which began with Scriabin's short and lyrical musings. Hewitt laced the selection with lots of rubato, sometimes stretching the tempos to the point of improvisation.

There was, however, colour and variety to the sequence, which sometimes bordered on violence in Scriabin's more intense and impetuous efforts. In the Chopin set, which also ran the gamut from C major to D minor, similar mood swings were experienced.

The astonishing transitions from the dark and turbulent Prélude No.14 (E flat minor), to the luminous clarity of No.15 “Raindrop” (D flat major) and relentless barnstorming No.16 (B flat minor) were starkly contrasted and trenchantly brought out. There were missed notes here and there, especially in running passages in pieces of both sets but that mattered little, as none of the playing came across as sounding bored.

The “remembrance” component fell to Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, a suite of character pieces written in tribute to his late artist-architect friend Viktor Hartmann. Hewitt's performance was accompanied by a visual component, a series of paper cuts by Czech-British artist Klara Smith representing individual pieces of the tableaux.

Bydlo, the oxcart

Projected on a large screen behind the pianist, the stylised illustrations – intricately crafted with cobwebbed finery - resembled that of wayang kulit. A purist will decry that piano music does not need such extra-musical stimuli to express itself. However in this case, Smith's handiwork proved more imaginative and interesting than Hewitt's playing.

Marketplace at Limoges

His rather constricted tonal dynamics, which hovered mostly between mezzoforte and tripleforte, would have proved more tiresome without the visuals. Hesitations, mistakes and misreadings would have also been less acceptable in a conventional recital, hence the picture show was more boon than bane.

Baba Yag's Hut on Fowl's Legs

And even that was not perfect. The playing of Tuileries was accompanied by birds, while the Ballet Of Unhatched Chicks was represented by children playing in a park. In short, the two movements had simply been mixed up. In the closing Great Gate Of Kiev, the picture was prematurely faded, with a giant black screen in its place.

Here with subtlety no longer an issue, Hewitt's portrayal of the E flat major carillons was gloriously clangorous, drawing a prolonged and vociferous reception. The encore, also in E flat major, Schubert's Impromptu (Op.90 No.2), was gratefully accepted.   

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, September 2017)

LALO Symphonie Espagnole
MANÉN Concierto Español
Barcelona Symphony / Darrell Ang
Naxos 8.573067 / *****

There is a long-standing joke that the best Spanish music was written by French composers. The most famous work titled Symphonie Espagnole (Spanish Symphony) was composed by Édouard Lalo (1823-1892) - a Frenchman - in 1875 and was actually a violin concerto dedicated to Spanish violin virtuoso Pablo Sarasate. 

On this disc of Spanish violin concertos, one gets the complete five movement version, including the fiery central Intermezzo which is occasionally omitted, as in Jascha Heifetz's famous RCA Victor recording.

Its coupling is the Concierto Español (Spanish Concerto) by the now-forgotten Joan Manén (1983-1971), who was a prodigy on both violin and piano. His 1897 three-movement concerto was dedicated to Fritz Kreisler and has every bit the Mediterranean flavour, infectious rhythms and charm of the Lalo. The central Lamento is particularly beautiful, book-ended by two spirited movements of hot-blooded Hispanic drama. 

The supreme irony is that Manén was from Barcelona, in the state of Catalonia that is seeking to break away from Spain. The excellent Barcelona Symphony supports the Chinese wunderkind Yang Tianwa, who had recorded Sarasate's solo and concertante works to great acclaim, and Singaporean conductor Darrell Ang. Whoever says music is not universal should listen to this and ponder.

Monday, 11 September 2017

NOW PLAYING / Trio Simeatri / Review

Trio Simeatri
Sinfonietta Hall, Forte Academy
Saturday (9 September 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 11 September 2017 with the title "Spellbound by promising trio".

Say hello to Singapore's newest chamber group, Trio Simeatri, a pun on the word “symmetry” derived from its members’ surnames. Comprising pianist Sim Yi Kai, cellist Eddie Sim and violinist Meah Tze Chuan, the trio's debut concert brought together two great piano trios in the united keys of D major and D minor.

Beethoven's Trio in D major (Op.70 No.1) began arrestingly with all three musicians in unison for its invigorating first movement theme. Immediately the sense of each player listening intently to his or her partners was established, this being the essence of chamber music that was to distinguish the evening's fine fare.

Both violist Meah and cellist Sim's intonation were spot-on and their tone refined, balanced by pianist Sim's sensitivity on a mellow and not over-reverberant Yamaha grand which made for mostly pleasurable listening. Occasionally some of the brilliant articulation on the piano got obscured but that did not occur in the eerily sombre slow movement.

The string lines were minimally accompanied, with the piano's frequent quiet tremolos providing an otherworldly atmosphere. The spectral comings and goings, as if taking place in a graveyard, were drolly captured, thus fully living up to the trio's nickname of “Ghost”. This spell was soon broken in the busy finale, with a return to buzzing normality.

A good start, and there was barely a break for a breather before the threesome launched into Mendelssohn's Trio No.1 in D minor (Op.49). Any reticence in the opening work was soon dispelled in the work's full flush of fiery Romanticism. This is Singapore's most often programmed of piano trios in recent years, but there was no hint of routine in this performance.

Pianist Sim was in the thick of things, his florid and scintillating piano part being the trio's most demanding share. Not only did he overcome its taxing passages, he also had to do his own frantic page-turning as the appointed page-turner had more or less given up with the lightning pace of the proceedings.

All this did not faze the trio which made light of the technical difficulties. There was however a respite in the slow movement where the strings' singing lines made this one of Mendelssohn's most memorable of his patented “songs without words”. Then they shifted gear for the feathery lightness of the Scherzo, which took flight on fairy's wings.

The finale was a joyous affair, with the plum melody going to cellist Sim (above), who was certainly not going to spurn the big moments it offered. The hour-long concert was attended by a full-house in this small and intimate venue. That the many children sat quietly transfixed through its entire duration demonstrated the absorbing power of music and the musicians. More is hoped from this very promising new piano trio. 

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, September 2017)

Danacord 789 / *****

Last year, the piano connoisseurs' festival in the North German seaside town of Husum founded by German pianist Peter Froundjian marked its 30th edition with 12 concerts featuring 14 pianists and a string quartet. This disc of highlights is the embodiment and distillation of its philosophy of showcasing rare Romantic repertoire, piano transcriptions and unusual encores. 

While Earl Wild's transcriptions of Rachmaninov songs, Stephen Hough's witty take on My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music, and Brahms' Hungarian Dance No.11 should no longer be considered rarities, they receive lovely performances by Martin Jones, Simon Callaghan, and the duo of Cyprien Katsaris and Helene Mercier respectively.

However, there is a lot to discover in works by Alexandrov, Casadesus, Chaminade, Coke, Kirchner, Moniuszko and Reubke, just to relive some forgotten names. The longest track at nearly 7 minutes is reserved for Liszt's Hymne de la nuit, a gem of rare introspection discarded from his cycle Harmonies poetiques et religeuses. Here, young Russian pianist Zlata Chochieva exposes the lie that Liszt was a vulgarian. 

Max Reger's Larghetto from Dreams at the Fireplace is a tribute to Chopin's Berceuse, shaped with much beauty by Joseph Moog. Herbert Rutkowski playing compatriot Paderewski's Nocturne is another cherished moment, while the Grau/Schumacher duo make light work of Busoni's arrangement of Mozart's The Magic Flute Overture. Here is delightful listening from a unique festival that goes from strength to strength.    


Esplanade Recital Studio
Monday (4 September 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 September 2017 with the title "Taking on a dynamic range of Liszt".

Imagine coming on stage to give an all-Liszt recital and not knowing what pieces are to be performed. That was the quandary facing American pianist Steven Spooner, who had offered five lists of piano works by the virtuoso Hungarian pianist-composer for the audience to vote on before the concert was to begin.

Comprising mostly young people and their parents, the audience probably had the good sense of shunning the half-hour-long Sonata in B minor, instead opting for Franz Liszt's song transcriptions, Transcendental Études and Hungarian Rhapsodies. Despite being mostly shorter pieces to accomodate shorter concentration spans, it was still a daunting prospect.

One of Liszt's legacies was to promote the music of less celebrated colleagues by transcribing their songs as piano solos for performance. Spooner began with one selection apiece from Schubert's three great song-cycles. In Wohin? (from Die Schöne Müllerin) and Ständchen (Schwanengesang), he found a mellifluous singing line, with the echoing voices of the latter being a particular treat. These were contrasted with the seemingly optimistic galloping rhythm of Die Post (Winterreise), a song bearing false hope.

Liszt's filigreed take on Chopin's Maiden's Wish called for nimble fingers while the gift of romantic love in Schumann's Widmung (Dedication) was gratefully consummated in sweeping arpeggios and emphatic chords. Leaving the most difficult for the last, Schubert's Erlkönig only promised tetanic spasms from the right hand's repeated octaves with the left hand's octaves scrambling to keep up. The sense of desperation, of a father's plight in rescuing a sick child, was palpable, but unlike the song's plot, the performance did not end in tragedy.

Two of twelve Transcendental Etudes also gave a sense of breadth and depth that was Liszt's art. Preludio (No.1), just a minute long, was a warming up exercise for Harmonies du soir (No.11), a glorious paean to the riches of chordal piano writing.

Even the two Hungarian Rhapsodies performed were not familiar favourites. Some listeners might remember the great French pianist Cyprien Katsaris polishing off Hungarian Rhapsody No.5 some years ago, a funeral procession that carried the title Heröide-Elégiaque (Heroic Elegy).

Its lugubriousness was tempered by a central section of rare Chopinesque lyricism, and Spooner's reading showed that this rather than the oft-performed Funerailles might have been Liszt's true tribute to Chopin. More Magyar in spirit was the Hungarian Rhapsody No.13, and with Vladimir Horowitz's swashbuckling additions, Spooner raised the decibel level and lifted the roof off the piano.    

With the noisy audience enthused, Spooner's encore of Liszt rarely-heard Rienzi Paraphrase, using themes from Wagner's early opera, was another work that tested the Steinway's dynamic limits. To proved that utmost sensitivity was also an attribute of complete pianism, Chopin's melancholic Mazurka in A minor (Op.17 No.4) provided a sublime and quiet end to an otherwise stormy evening. 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

BRIEF ENCOUNTERS / Metropolitan Festival Orchestra / Review

Metropolitan Festival Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (3 September 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 September 2017 with the title "Brief but fruitful musical encounter".

The title of this concert was probably derived from the David Lean-directed black-and-white movie Brief Encounter of 1945 where Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto featured prominently in its soundtrack. It however accurately describes the musical collaboration between musicians from Singapore and Austria in this concert, organised by local non-profit organisation Global Cultural Alliance.

Its first half featured the popular Rachmaninov concerto with young Singaporean pianist Li Churen in the demanding solo role. From the intent and demeanour of its opening chords on the Bösendorfer Imperial Grand, one could tell the confident and self-assured Li was going to put her personal stamp on the old warhorse. And it was not to be a self-indulgent spiel, but a totally musical affair where the music came first.

She comfortably surmounted its striding arpeggios, heavy octaves and tricky fingerwork, ably abetted by the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra conducted by Chan Tze Law. It was towards the slow movement's close, with just strings accompanied her passionate chords, which provided the concerto's most heartrending moments. Even when she took liberties in stretching out the final cadenza, it was the blazing conclusion that elicited the longest applause.

The second half was almost double the length of the first, and it featured the 60-strong Chorus Sine Nomine from Austria with the same orchestra conducted by Johannes Hiematsberger. The main work on show was Schubert's Mass No.6 in E flat major (D. 950), composed in the final year of his all-too-brief life.  

The choir's size and experience of its singers (it is not a youth choir) ensured that the widest possible range of dynamics was encompassed all through its heavenly length – some 50 minutes, typical of late Schubert. From the quiet opening Kyrie Eleison expanding to the ecstatic declamations of the Gloria and Sanctus, rising to lofty heights of Brucknerian grandeur, there was little that the mass of voices missed.

Both the ladies and gentlemen's sections were well-matched and homogeneously merged as one. In the Credo, the three solo voices of tenors Jakob Tobias Pejcic and Florian Ehrlinger and soprano Marie-Antoinette Stabentheiner emerged. The effable lilt in Et Incarnatus Est, with its gentle triplet rhythm, was simply delightful.

A solo quartet completed by alto Daniela Janezic and bass-baritone Daniel Gutmann distinguished in the Benedictus, albeit all too briefly, but it was the statuesque Stabentheiner's soaring voice that stood out. All the fugal sections were splendidly handled by the chorus, no doubt the effort of Hiematsberger's meticulous and expert honing.

Before the mass which headily closed the concert, there was more easy listening in choral favourites. Brahms' Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen (How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place) from A German Requiem, Gabriel Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine (sung in French) and Hubert Parry's Blest Pair Of Sirens (in English) merely served as the warming-up prelude for the Schubert.  However brief this encounter was, may more such fruitful collaborations of equals continue.

All photos by courtesy of Global Cultural Alliance.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

O FOR THE WINGS OF A DOVE / The Choir of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge / Review

Choir of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge
Victoria Concert Hall
Tuesday (29 August 2017)

The sound of heaven descended to Earth, specifically Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall, on an August evening with the excellent Choir of Gonville & Caius College Cambridge led by its long-time music director Geoffrey Webber. The choir is well-known for performing lesser-known repertoire on its many excellent recordings, but the programme presented this evening was filled with familiar choral favourites.

The 23-member choir of mostly students with two organ scholars Michael How and Luke Fitzgerald generated a rich and voluminous sound for its relatively small size, and filled the spacious venue with an outsized sonority. Bigger choirs have come and gone, but this one impressed with the quality of ensemble and strong individual voices.

English composers featured prominently with motets from William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons opening the lovely programme. The homogeneity of the voices provided a warm and comforting presence that was continued in Monteverdi’s Ave Maris Stella and Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus.

In Allegri’s famous Miserere, the choir was split into three smaller groups, placed on stage, the balcony (circle seats) and a solo baritone at the back of the stalls. The effect was celestial, and not since that most memorable Miserere by the Tallis Scholars in the early noughties has the hall resounded with such vibrancy. For the titular Mendelssohn Hear My Prayer (O For The Wings Of A Dove), there was no boy soprano but soprano Aleksandra Wittchen (above) was to be just as magical.

There were more excellent solo voices heard in Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice In The Lamb, one of the 20th century English composer’s more accessible works. Here, animals, plants and musical instruments offer their praise to God in a luminous and joyous paean that ends quietly but happily. In Three Shakespeare Songs by Vaughan Williams, beautiful harmonies reigned, such as in the bell sounds of the first song Full Fathom Five.

The English programme was completed by conductor Webber’s own arrangement of Greensleeves (a rather original take on a familiar tune), John Rutter’s arrangement of O Waly, Waly (also very beautiful), and closing with by Hubert Parry’s ceremonial I Was Glad, performed at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

The small but appreciative audience accorded the choir much applause, and they were rewarded with Frances Cheryl-Hoad’s Beyond The Night Sky as an encore. Its ethereal harmonies and general feeling of wonderment were accompanied by “sounds” of whizzing comets and twinkling stars – whistles and wheezes – and the words of Gonville & Caius’ most famous alumnus Stephen Hawking. That was simply the most fitting and breathtaking way to close an excellent evening of choral music.