Monday, 10 January 2011

SSO Concert: A Night With Tchaikovsky / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (7 January 2010)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 10 January
with the title "Conjuring up old Russia".

With Tchaikovsky, some things are almost certain: heart-wrenching melodies, overwrought climaxes and a surfeit of emotional excesses. For almost two and a half hours, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was transformed into an emsemble that sounded like the great Russian orchestras of vintage. The catalyst was Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who turns 80 this year, in his third outing with the SSO.

The elevated status of the podium was shunned, as he conducted with feet firmly planted on the stage floor, level with his charges (left). Wielding economical directions and gestures bordering on the miserly, he drew great swathes of sound that almost defied belief.

The sheer magnetism was palpable, as low strings heaved a forlorn sigh in the opening of the hour-long Manfred Symphony, as if bearing the weight of the world on their collective shoulders. This and more characterised the programme music based on Lord Byron’s Romantic anti-hero whose crushing guilt eventually gets the better of him.

The scherzo flew on feathered wings like some fairy tale scene while the slow movement’s lyric sunshine was clouded by undercurrents of deep-seated angst. All built up to an epic finale, where fateful forces of tragedy came to bear. Unlike the bleaker Pathetique Symphony, mighty chords from Evelyn Lim’s pipe organ offered glimmers of hope. Forget about Manfred’s redemption, the pathologically-depressed Tchaikovsky was scripting his own.

The first half was witness to the rarely-performed Second Piano Concerto in G major (Op.44) with Rozhdestvensky’s wife Viktoria Postnikova at the keyboard. But wait, was it not Stephen Hough who performed it just 18 months ago? The two readings were poles apart. While the Briton personified litheness and athleticism, the Russian radiated opulence and monumentality.

Besides dealing out heavy chords and octave salvos, she also proved extremely nimble in the fussy filigreed bits that demanded elfin-like lightness, culminating with a giant of a cadenza that was the last word in barnstorming.

The Rozhdestvenskys acknowledging the applause.

The best music came in the slow movement, a triple concerto in all but name. Here, concertmaster Alexander Souptel’s exquisite violin solo blended beautifully with Ng Pei Sian’s silky cello, and the ménage a trois was complete with Postnikova’s singing tone on the piano. Scintillating pianism wrapped up the rip-roaring finale, and her encore of Barcarolle (June from The Seasons) provided the icing on the cake. Simply irresistible.

Before emigrating to Singapore, SSO Concertmaster
Alexander Souptel was Gennady Rozhdestvensky's
concertmaster in the USSR Ministry of Culture
& USSR Radio Symphony Orchestras for over 10 years.

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