Monday, 19 July 2010

SSO Concert: Mahler Festival: Tragic Symphony / Concert



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Friday (16 July 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 July 2010.

In October this year, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra will perform in London for the first time in almost 20 years. The soloist for that concert will be the acclaimed British pianist Stephen Hough, and their performance this evening of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto was a trial run for that Royal Festival Hall date.

For a work lasting barely 20 minutes, Hough (left) milked the dizzying showpiece for all its worth. Going beyond its stampeding octaves and filigreed prestidigitation, his account was one of unfailing grace and understated elegance. Far from the Victorian prissiness one almost expects, it pulsated with rude health yet teased with a wealth of delectable touches and tantalising rubato.

From this ever-resourceful pianist, one delights in the unexpected and his encore was no exception. Opening and closing with the chordal sequence that heralds Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, Hough’s own transcription of the popular Russian song Moscow Evenings was pure cheek, topped with a shot of vodka.

It was all serious stuff for the concert’s latter half. Detractors of Gustav Mahler will cite his Sixth Symphony as the most hysterical and self-pitying of the lot. That is only part of the story, an almost autobiographical one of a great life ruthlessly cut down at its prime. SSO Music Director Lan Shui (left) helmed a memorable performance that recognised the tragedy, yet acknowledged the fears and celebrated the triumphs. The funeral marches in the first and last movements were fast, and tautly guided. These were no solemn processions of final repose, instead trajectories hurtling inexorably towards a certain doom. The scoring is raucous, even precious and vulgar at parts. Unusual sonorities abounded, from dangling cowbells, prophetic sledgehammer blows to that unearthly pairing of blaring tuba and twanging harp for the cataclysmic finale.

The final half hour of hopes raised and cruelly dashed ranks among Mahler’s greatest utterances. While the orchestra might have benefited from extra rehearsals to round off the flaws and raw bits, there was no denying the energy, heart and care for detail invested in this performance. For Shui, this marked a personal completion of Mahler’s eleven symphonies with the SSO, a rewarding journey that stakes the claim that we have a bona fide and convincing Mahler orchestra in our midst.

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