Thursday, 22 January 2009

SSO Beethoven Cycle: The Unquiet Soul / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
LAN SHUI, Conductor
Saturday (17 January 2009)

This review was published in
The Straits Times on 19 January 2009

It has been six years since the Singapore Symphony Orchestra first performed at the Esplanade, and the full potential of the concert hall’s fabled acoustics is now consistently being realised. The power and might of a Beethoven symphony cycle was thus the ideal vehicle to seal this partnership.

Even the pairing of two underrated symphonies – the Second with the Fourth - demonstrated this delicate balance of sound to be no fortuitous accident. Full-bodied tonal allure has become a regular feature, yet no facets of instrumental minutiae are being lost. From feather-like caresses to great bear-hugs of climaxes, these dynamic extremes which make or break a performance are all taken in its stride.

Both symphonies begin with quiet and rapt introductions, but the mystery and tension generated by the orchestra is immediately palpable, this before launching into full-blooded allegros. Conducting completely from memory, Music Director Lan Shui’s vision is one of raw energy and virility, one which feeds upon its own adrenaline rushes.

Brisker than usual tempos are adopted, but never in the expense of flexibility or fastidious attention to detail. The orchestra has now matured to the point that little is beyond its reach. The string chorale that opened the Second Symphony’s Larghetto was so beautifully shaded as to be exquisite, for example. This level of subtlety was a rarity some 15 years ago, but has now become sine qua non.

Fast music in scherzos and finales, previously born of youthful exuberance and hotheadedness, now take on the added dimensions of well-tempered virtuosity and multiple degrees of responsiveness. Principle bassoonist Zhang Jin Min’s short but breathtaking solo in the Fourth Symphony’s perpetual motion of a finale dovetailed so seamlessly as to be almost a non-event.

Sandwiched between the two symphonies was Mozart’s graceful Third Violin Concerto (K.216). Here, the pared down SSO was all ears to the sumptuous artistry of Russian violinist Dmitri Makhtin (left). Again, it was the slow movement that revealed the most; the silky unison of the violins in its opening page leading to Makhtin’s celestial solo aria could only be described as dream chamber music.

The SSO, now in its 30th anniversary year, can no longer be described as “good only in loud and fast music”.

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