Saturday, 26 March 2011

SSO Concert: Poetry and Brilliance / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Rossen Milanov, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (24 March 2011)

An edited version of this review was published in
The Straits Times on 26 March 2011 with the title
"A Minor rush in Dang's playing".

Orchestral concerts often begin with a curtain raiser, often an overture, to warm up the ensemble and settle latecomers down. On this occasion, some forgettable ballet music from Mozart’s opera Idomeneo opened, before the two major works on show. Although well performed, it seemed supercilious.

Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai Son, who was the epitome of poetry and brilliance in Chopin last year, sounded out of sorts in Grieg’s familiar Piano Concerto in A minor (Op.16). It was not because of an immaculate technique failing him, but rather a tendency to rush the fences, speeding through certain passages and hammering out the Lisztian chords and octaves without apology.

Thankfully there was still a wellspring of lyricism that flowed unabated in the gentler pages and the lovely slow movement, but does the Norwegian composer (left) known for his mellowness deserve such impetuosity, or impatience? The big 1st movement cadenza sounded over-pedalled and glossed over, and the otherwise beautiful encore To Spring (one of the Lyric Pieces) suffered a stumble. Not the best day at the office for a usually dependable pianist.

The longer second half belonged to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in D minor (Op.47), given a clean but passionate reading. The strings, decrying in perfect unison, opened with a stark portrait of Soviet authoritarianism. The wheels of this faceless monolithic behemoth rumbled on in a march of doom, heralded by pianist Shane Thio’s relentless ostinatos. A terrifying vision of brutality was aptly conveyed.

The heart of the work, splendidly guided by Bulgarian conductor Rossen Milanov, resided not in the satirical scherzo but the heart-wrenching Largo slow movement. Here the gradual build-up to its shuddering climax was a masterstroke of conception, with the thumbscrews turned ever so inexorably and agonisingly.

The strident march of the finale provided a respite, but its ambiguous ending in glorious D major remained the enigma it posed. Does the work end triumphantly, or with an enforced jubilation belying the gnashing of teeth? Even the orchestra seemed in two minds, the brass exultant and the strings keeping up pretences with its repeated high As.

This is the second Shostakovich Fifth by the SSO heard in the space of ten months. So when will one finally get to experience an arguably greater work, the Fourth Symphony?

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