Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Ode to Leningrad / Singapore Symphony Orchestra: Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (29 November 2008)
A slightly edited version of this review was published by The Straits Times on 2 December 2008. Believe it or not, this was my VERY FIRST review of a SSO concert.

Much ink has been spilt over the decades on the supposed merits and failings of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, also known as the Leningrad Symphony. Composed during the darkest hour in the Nazi siege of the city, which cost the lives of a million people, it provided Russians with a ray of hope and final victory. To the less sympathetic, its 75 minutes represent the crudest of Soviet socialist propaganda.

Former East German conductor Günther Herbig (left), on his third visit to Singapore, refused to be drawn into its programmatic polemics. Regarding it as absolute music, as in a Mahler or Bruckner symphony, he drew from the SSO the best it had to offer. In a performance that eschewed hysterics, it avoided the all too easy tendency of descending into bathos.

The opening was well paced, and when the notoriously repetitive Fascist march arrived, it did so surreptitiously before escalating inexorably into full-scale battle mode. The effect was simply awesome, but more importantly it demonstrated that the banalities foisted by Shostakovich were totally intentional, rather than the work of a mere party hack.

Strings were uniformly warm, and the various solos shone, notably Roberto Alvarez’s poignant piccolo and the juggernaut delivered on the snare drum by the Panzer-steady Jonathan Fox. Brass were worked overtime but delivered with great immediacy.

The two consecutive slow movements provided relative respite, but erupted with just the right degree of turbulence in their fast central episodes. The quiet calm before the finale’s onslaught was particularly chilling, and like the rest of the performance, the contrasts delivered made this longest of symphonies well worth the effort. Can we expect Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony from the same forces next?

Speaking of contrasts, there could not have been a more congenial work than Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto, which made the first half of the concert. Canadian super-virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin (left), better known for his Alkan, Godowsky and Medtner, delivered a dream performance. One who delighted in flying octaves and busy prestidigitation, Hamelin also showed that tenderness and crafting a beautiful sonority – evidence in the slow movement – was part of an all-encompassing pianist’s arsenal.

An encore, Hamelin’s own impressionistic Little Nocturne, shaded with crystalline harmonies and delicate pianissimos, was a well-deserved treat.

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