Saturday, 28 November 2009

Singapore Symphony Orchestra: Ode To Joy / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Soloists & Combined Choruses
LAN SHUI, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (26 November 2009)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 November 2009.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven symphony cycle in celebration of its 30th anniversary came to a shuddering climax with its performance of the Ninth Symphony in D minor, popularly known as the “Choral Symphony”. It was a reading for the open-minded, not for the faint of heart.

But first, the presence of famed German soprano Juliane Banse ensured she got a spot of her own. Beethoven’s concert aria Ah! Perfido was the ideal vehicle for her vocal prowess. Almost operatic in character, it was Beethoven’s prescient musical representation of Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief, beloved of psychologists and counselors.

A woman decries the infidelity of her man, traversing from denial and anger, bargaining through depression, to final acceptance. Banse (left) projected the highly dramatic music well, with an emotionally charged vibe that gradually worked its way into a warm and lyrical denouement.

Its thirteen minutes whetted appetites for the Ninth Symphony, which clocked in at an alarming 60 minutes. With pared-down forces, extra-fast tempos and a lean sound dictated, a jolt to those who favoured the gravity and grandeur of a Karajan or Furtwangler. The unsettling first movement raced ahead, followed by the rapid fire scherzo-like second, relentless like a juggernaut.

The respite craved for in the slow movement came and went, its heavenly length unimpeded by a natural flow that was pleasing but offered little that was profound. There was simply no time for ruminating or meandering. All this set the stage for a brilliant final movement, which was to be the ultimate triumph of the performance.

The first furtive appearance of the Ode to Joy theme was subtly shaded, and the bass Wilhelm Schwinghammer’s declaration of fraternal solidarity rang out imposing and heroic. The four soloists (which had three Germans, including alto Carolin Masur) were well-matched, each holding their parts well, even if American tenor Thomas Cooley’s solo in the Turkish-segment sounded hectic and rushed.

The 200-strong combined choir, augmented by the Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir, was marvelous throughout. Always sensitive to dynamic changes, it also dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, as expected from its exacting director Lim Yau. The orchestral and choral fugues were simply thrilling, generating the frisson for a grandstand finish.

Music Director Lan Shui’s view of Beethoven remains controversial and challenging as ever, but was it not Gustav Mahler who once said “tradition is sloth”?

No comments: