Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Leon Fleisher with the Conservatory Orchestra / Review

Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (14 March 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 March 2009.

American pianist and conductor Leon Fleisher’s week-long residence at the Conservatory as its Ong Teng Cheong Distinguished Visiting Professor culminated with a concert in which he fulfilled both musical roles. Conducting was an activity nurtured during his years away from active piano concertising, brought on by the affliction of focal dystonia.

Fine motor control, a pre-requisite in piano playing, gave way to the broad gestures of the maestro’s baton. These he exercised with great vision and purpose. The opening punched out chords of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture – clean and resolute – showed who was in charge. Through his hands, the Roman consul’s inner turmoil and rage, portrayed by the music’s tug-of-war between tension and relaxation that followed, was also laid bare.

Conductor turned soloist in Mozart’s Double Piano Concerto in F major (K.242, sometimes performed in its 3-piano version) where Fleisher was joined by wife and former student Katherine Jacobson. Combining both roles without much fuss, the chemistry displayed on two keyboards and a pared-down orchestra was immediately palpable. Blinding brilliance was sacrificed for intimacy, as the warmth of exquisite chamber music-making reigned supreme.

Both pianos, voiced to an altogether mellow perfection, sang as one. This was no better demonstrated in the slow movement, which passed like a dream. The finale sounded almost over fastidious but was dance-like in its simplicity. Those who favour fireworks will be advised to check Mozart’s directions – not Allegro assai but Tempo di Menuetto!

Kent Ridge regulars will already be familiar with this orchestra’s undoubted prowess. Add responsiveness to its long list of positive attributes. With Fleisher’s guiding hand, it scaled the heights and furrowed the troughs of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, carving out a totally memorable reading.

This was a performance that eschewed heart-on-sleeve emotions (unlike the SSO’s recent recording) for greater objectivity. The opening was expansive but well-supported, and could have done with greater contrasts when the Allegro moderato arrived. No fear about the Dies Irae-inspired Scherzo, which bristled to tempestuous life unapologetically.

The slow movement, a final efflorescence of Romantic gestures (this being 1908), highlighted many wonderful solos, pride of place going to the clarinet, with its Mozart-like lyricism. The finale’s procession of surging climaxes brought the succession emotional highs to a highly satisfying close. Can the listener expect more? Most definitely, and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique awaits.

No comments: