Monday, 8 February 2010

SSO Concert: Transfiguration / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (5 February 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 February 2010.

It was an inspired stroke of programming by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra to pair music by Johannes Brahms and Arnold Schoenberg. The former was a staunch upholder of the classical tradition, while the latter threatened and destroyed the status quo. Both composers resided in Vienna, becoming as iconic as the musical capital itself.

Brahms’ Tragic Overture, a stand-alone symphonic movement rather than prelude to musical theatre, is equal to any in his four symphonies. Under conductor Okko Kamu, the orchestra coaxed a very smooth and non-histrionic performance. While hard edges and bumps were ironed out, its evocation of seriousness and portent of tragedy were never in doubt. Drawn inexorably by the pull of Fate, its Beethovenian conclusion was also delivered with aplomb.

Lushness of sonority distinguished Schoenberg’s (left) most popular work Verklaerte Nacht (Transfigured Night), originally written for string sextet in 1899. The large string orchestra version was heard, with its post-Wagnerian maelstrom of anguish and neurosis amplified manifold.

Apart from several solo passages that sounded disjointed, the playing was generally polished. Although the ensemble also coped well with its roller-coaster of emotions, there was an episodic feel through its half-hour duration. For the ultimate of slickness, one will still defer to Karajan’s legendary 1973 recording.

The evening’s highlight was undoubtedly Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major (Op.77), with its solo part commandingly helmed by Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos (left). So good was this that it put the memory of the New York Philharmonic’s performance last October well in the shade. Kavakos is not one of those glib play-by-numbers jet-setting soloists; he made every note and phrase count towards a magnificent whole.

For all his voluminous tone and perfect intonation, it was the fine control, ability to feel and fit into the music’s myriad contours that were striking. The reflective moment shortly following the 1st movement cadenza, where he blended seamlessly with Ma Yue’s solo clarinet and Rachel Walker’s oboe, was something magical worth reliving over and over.
Following the sublime slow movement where Walker’s solo sparkled like a jewel, Kavakos led the attack on the Hungarian-flavoured finale. More furioso than giocoso, he threw all caution into the wind, even adding dance-like steps to the invigorating Rondo. The applause was loud and prolonged, generously reciprocated with two substantial encores by Ysaye (slow movement from Sonata No.4) and Bach (Sarabande from Partita No.2). Music-making rarely gets better than this.
An American lady sitting beside me suggested that
Leonidas Kavakos looked like Marc Chagall's Green Violinist.
By golly, she was right!

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