Monday, 24 January 2011

SSO Concert: Journey's End / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (22 January 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times
on 24 January 2011 with the title
"Great journey with Mahler"

One way of gauging how an ensemble has progressed over the years is to chart its performance of an iconic work as a series of landmarks. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has lived with Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony for twenty years, its first performance conducted by Choo Hoey in 1991. Since then, it has been performed in three further seasons, including the China premiere in 2001.

And how it has matured under Music Director Lan Shui’s direction, both band and leader growing in stature in tandem. No longer is the orchestra content in accurately churning out the notes, but actually living the music and faithfully bringing out the essence of the composer’s intentions.

This was Mahler’s last completed symphony, his swansong to life. It is a world-wearied trudge; a reminiscence of past glories and tribulations, a resigned but quiet affirmation of one’s existence. The sublime performance this evening encompassed all of these, and with a little more to spare.

The gentle opening, characterised by a quivering pulse (portending death from rheumatic heart disease), was deftly handled, gradually expanding into a full-blown cry of anguish. This shuddering heartbeat was unerringly maintained, proceeding like some tottering march into the unknown.

The best parts were not in the cataclysmic climaxes but the close-to-silent and static moments when time literally stood still. Murmurs in the strings spelt unease, pleading soliloquys from woodwinds and brass paroxysms added to the all-pervading sense of isolation. All departments were in top form.

The middle movements provided the contrasts, first a deliberately gawky Ländler (Austrian country dance), that began innocently naïve and lurched into intoxicating revelry. The grotesque Rondo-Burleske turned a banal theme into a raving malediction, culminating in a mad dash towards doom.

Through breathless excitement, Laurence Gargan’s perfectly executed trumpet theme emerged like a ray of hope illuminating in a vale of darkness. This set the tone for the valedictory finale, a Beethovenian farewell which rapidly thawed the ice and gradually warmed the spirits.

Never has an Adagio resounded with such finality, each mincing step pregnant with meaning as fragile life ebbed away into nothingness. The glacial dynamics and extreme pianissimos seemed insupportable, but Shui’s charges held sway to the very end. The extremely attentive audience held its collective breath; they had just witnessed a Mahler performance for the ages.

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