Monday, 16 August 2010

SSO Concert: Pathétique / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (13 August 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 August 2010.

For once in a while, the person who gives titles for Singapore Symphony Orchestra concerts has got it spot on. “Pathétique” refers to the Russian use of the word, which connotes passion and deep sorrow. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, his fatal final opus, had all the qualities to deserve that epithet.

When one expected searing melodrama, the orchestra conducted by the boyish-looking Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbanski, delivered a reading memorable for an insidious sense of tragedy. The symphony began with barely a whisper, simmering beneath a surface of beguiling calm. Just when one wondered when the angst would ever kick in, the eruption of rage went straight for the jugular and did not let go.

These dynamic extremes jolted the senses after having seemingly lulled one to a comfortable repose. Even cracked notes from the trumpets would not detract from that startling impression. The second movement waltzed gracefully like skaters on ice, while the Scherzo’s march flew rather than rumbled inexorably to the brink of the precipice.

For once, the audience – which invariably wrongly applauds after the 3rd movement’s sound and fury – was reduced to stunned silence. All these were merely a prelude to the final movement’s journey of rising and overwhelming depression. Seldom has a state of terminal despair and spiritual desolation been better portrayed in a performance, which returned to the depths as it began.

More uplifting was Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, his only concerto in the minor key. Again, the interpretation was to tread lightly and deliver the bad news in an oblique manner. Central to this was the greying but still elegant Russian pianist Dmitri Alexeev, for whom barnstorming seems a foreign word.

Allegro con brio here did not refer to the loudness or flashiness but the urgency with which the message was conveyed. While the lovely slow movement was an oasis of reverential calm, sparks flew for the Rondo finale. Here the fire reflected an inner turmoil, but an aristocratic mien was never far away.

The concert’s opener was Polish modernist Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa (1986), a short work for only strings. Beginning with just two violins, its minimalist and repetitious loops gradually built in strength, filling the hall with the earthy rhythms of Tatra Mountain dances. Far from the mind-numbing nonsense that passes for some contemporary music today, this was sheer pleasure. Encore!

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