Monday, 10 May 2010

SSO Concert: Russian Rhapsody / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Arvo Volmer, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (8 May 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 May 2010.

It is a rare evening when everything on a concert programme clicks together like final pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Despite an all 20th century look, there was nothing in this evening’s SSO concert that appeared foreign or forbidding, instead all the works resonated and coalesced with excellent symmetry. The banal title does not even begin to tell half the story.

Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich (left) were kindred spirits, great composers in their own land who later became good friends. It was the former’s Sinfonia Da Requiem that began the evening. On a D minor pedal point, blasts from the timpani led the funereal procession of the Lacrymosa, a journey of pain that later erupted into the violent Dies Irae, spitting vitriol and seething with sarcasm.

The orchestra’s incisive attack was spot on, with the ensemble immaculate and every solo responding with extreme vehemence. And as soon as the tightened screws reached its furthest turn, the music relaxed in the Requiem Aeternam, with the band responding with equal resilience for its path to eternal repose.

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, also in D minor, sounded like the perfect coupling. Although non-programmatic, its four movements painted a bleak view of 1930s Soviet Russia, a requiem for a society turned upon its head. Sobbing strings in the first and third movements were an SSO specialty, poignantly portraying the tragedy and catharsis. Equally absorbing were concertmaster Alexander Souptel’s solos in the Scherzo, which thumbed a nose at the system’s rotten core.

Under the direction of Estonian conductor Arvo Volmer, Music Director of the Adelaide Symphony, the epic score replete with ironies and in-jokes resounded with great trenchancy. The mock heroics of the finale’s march did not hide the perpetuation of suffering, which the performance lucidly brought out.

Sandwiched in between both works was the sweetener in Rachmaninov’s popular Paganini Rhapsody. Its 24 variations on violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini’s 24th Caprice, interpolated with the medieval chant Dies Irae, saw Swedish pianist Peter Jablonski (left) allying intricate fingerwork with absolute bravura. Here was the ultimate crowd-pleaser, but on evidence of the other works on show, every performance deserved the loudest of cheers.

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