Tuesday, 30 November 2010


Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (28 November 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 November 2010.

In a year of music dominated by Chopin and Mahler, it is always gratifying to note that the underrated Robert Schumann (1810-1856) receiving due recognition by chamber music circles. After all, he wrote the best chamber music among the three composers whose anniversaries are being celebrated.

Zara is a young international chamber group formed by Singaporean violinist Tang Tee Khoon and her friends from Korea, Israel, Belgium and Britain. They have only performed together for one year but already sound like seasoned veterans. Every member is a true virtuoso, and it was immediately apparent in the opening work, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor (Op.13). Mendelssohn was a close member of Schumann’s inner circle, which merited his inclusion.

The members of ZARA:
Tang Tee Khoon, Dimitri Murrath, Adi Tal,
Sam Armstrong & Julianne Lee (from L)

Refined playing, ultimate control and the ability to listen to each other distinguished its slow introduction, and that remained a hallmark and constant for the whole concert. Four string players breathed as one, led by Korean first violinist Julianne Lee, as they launched the Allegro with Beethovenian vigour. Commanding the full gamut of emotions and colours, the performance sang and sighed, contrasting declamatory salvoes with gossamer lightness, before closing in sublime stillness.

It was all Schumann after that. More passion flowed in the Piano Trio No.3 In G minor (Op.110), where British pianist Sam Armstrong partnered Tang and Israeli cellist Adi Tal. Here the tragically short-lived German’s Romantic heart and soul was laid bare, where its dark desires and impetuous surges gradually underwent a transformation to the sunny G major daylight of the joyous finale.

After the interval, Belgian violist Dimitri Murrath (with pianist Armstrong) than polished off the Adagio & Allegro (Op.70), with aching lyricism so typical of the composer giving way to ecstatic rapture. Such authority and conviction followed into the final offering, the rarely heard Piano Quartet in E flat major (Op.47).

It was Schumann’s heart-on-sleeve vulnerability that made his music so appealing and memorable. From Beethoven-influenced fist shaking gestures of the opening, the restless perpetual motion of the Scherzo, that lovely song without words with each of the string instruments taking turns on the melody, to the busy counterpoint of the finale, Zara’s performance showed what it meant to be alive and in love with life itself.

The audience in attendance must rank as one of the least initiated ever encountered for chamber music. It clapped inappropriately in between movements for all the works, trooped off after the first work thinking it was the intermission, leaving the hall half-filled for the second piece, and then re-entering in dribs and drabs with the music already in progress, in full view of the performers. Our international guests must think us a bunch of yokels and bumpkins. Pearls before swine come to mind, but one must not be unkind. Did they have any clue that they had just witnessed (and almost spoiled) easily the best chamber concert of the year?

Zara performs more Schumann on Tuesday (Tonight!) at 8pm in Esplanade Recital Studio. Do not miss it.

The members of Zara at their Youth Interactive event.

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