Monday, 25 January 2010

SSO Concert: Buried Treasure / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (22 January 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 January 2010.

This year marks the bicentenary of the German composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856), as good as any reason for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to embark on a Schumann symphony cycle. Beginning with chronologically his last symphony, the “Rhenish” in E flat major, the orchestra generated an aura of pomp and majesty right from the outset.

Under the direction of the eminent American conductor Gerard Schwarz, it was easy to be swept away by the broad waves of sound that poured forth. But listening more attentively, one could discern a wealth of detail, not least in the intricate counterpoint weaved into the 2nd movement’s melody or the gentle rhythmic nuances of the intermezzo-like middle movement.

Most of all it was the force of personality of the music and interpretation that impressed. While Schumann’s musical vision of Cologne Cathedral in the slow movement was awe-inspiring, the performance captured the feeling of grandeur and magnificent antiquity, with sheer elation following in the closing pages.

The concert had however opened on a dour note, as Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture was taken at such a deliberate pace as to negate the drama arising from the opposing forces that tore the Roman general apart. Sustaining tension or attention became a tall order as the result.

No such fears surfaced for Shostakovich’s darkly-hewn First Violin Concerto in A minor (Op.99)from the young Belgian-Bulgarian violinist Yossif Ivanov (left). Just only 22, he has both the technical ability and depth of expression to transcend the 40-minute angst-laden score dedicated to the great David Oistrakh.

Projecting a bright, penetrating sound, he illuminated an unerring path through the ruminative Nocturne, and traded high jinks with various instrumental combinations in the Scherzo, a slalom on the razor’s edge with its ciphers and in-jokes. Ivanov came further into his own in the dead-serious Passacaglia, ripping fearlessly into its cadenza before the wild frenzied dance in the Klezmer-styled finale. His encore by Ysaye also proved one thing – here is a bona fide virtuoso equal to the best.

The fact that the concerto was suppressed by the composer for eight years was understandable. That and the discovery of precocious new talent in Ivanov probably go some way in the corny title of this concert: “Buried Treasure”. For classical concerts to be taken seriously, these kooky monikers and whoever is naming them, will just have to stop.

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