Monday, 1 February 2010

SSO Concert: Symphonic Fantasy / Review

Symphonic Fantasy
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (30 January 2010)

This review was published by The Straits Times on 1 February 2010.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s only homage to Chopin in his bicentenary year was a performance of the First Piano Concerto, nestling within a Schumann symphonic cycle. This is not a big surprise given the Pole had written nothing purely orchestral, merely six concertante works for piano and orchestra.

The E minor concerto (Op.11) is the greatest of these, and a sense of occasion was heightened by Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai Son (left), 1st prize-winner of the 1980 Chopin International Piano Competition. He is the consummate Chopin interpreter, fully attuned to the music’s heart and soul, a master of multitudes of notes and dynamic shifts.

His way with the bel canto aspect was flawless, smooth as silk and pure like morning dew. The nocturne-like slow movement Romance passed like a dream. On the opposite pole, sparks flew and ignited the fire in the outer movements, his fingers in scintillating form. A chorus of bravos from the audience was rewarded with an encore of Chopin’s No.1 hit: the Nocturne in E flat major (Op.9 No.2). How often has this been heard in concert? Rarely, to be honest, and rarely rendered this beautifully.

The concert began with Schumann’s Manfred Overture, with its three dramatic and strident opening chords setting the tone for the concert as a whole. Under SSO Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu’s (left) direction, the orchestra was given full rein to Schumann’s volatile and often-violent Romantic impulses. The strings, amid passionate throes, exuded a lustrous sheen that was hard to resist.

This Schumann revelry continued in the second half with the Fourth Symphony in D minor, arguably his least familiar of four symphonies. Resembling Beethoven most in its intensity and gestures, its four movements - played without a break - received a taut and urgently cohesive reading. The recycling of themes and their variants lends the work its economy and conciseness, a fact not lost to the performers.

While concertmaster Lynnette Seah’s lovely sinuous obbligato violin solo lit up the second movement, it was the brass that had a field day, driving home their message with much cogency. The final glory however goes to the composer himself; a performance like this makes patent nonsense the widely held misconception that Schumann wrote second-rate orchestral music. That is the true reason why musical anniversaries are justly celebrated.

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