Thursday, 22 September 2011

SSO Concert: The Sibelius Symphonies Nos.1&3

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Tuesday (20 September 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 september 2011 with the headline "Pianist's triumphant return"

It is rare for Singapore Symphony Orchestra concerts to take place on a Tuesday evening. Brought forward because of this weekend’s F1 Grand Prix, the hall was however well filled despite horrendous traffic disruptions and parking strictures. Many had come to witness formerly-exiled Singapore-born British pianist Melvyn Tan’s long-awaited debut with the SSO.

He literally glided onto the stage, and while seated a long distance from the piano, made himself completely at home. His performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in A major (K.488) was a total joy from the word go. Crafting a very light and limpid sound that miraculously transcended the orchestra’s support, he made the piano sing, living up to Mozart’s direction of “flowing like oil”.

There were moments where he decided to broaden tempos and smell the flowers, such as in the first movement’s cadenza and the seemingly timeless central Adagio. Such liberties breathed life and meaning into the music, beyond the routine black and white of the score.

The finale was taken at a sprightly clip, picking up further velocity as both pianist and orchestra raced toward the checkered flag. Tan was clearly enjoying himself as he stepped on the gas, with the ensemble gamely keeping up at every turn. It was simply exhilarating, made ever more enjoyable with a sublime encore, the Schubert-Liszt Serenade (from Schwanengesang).

The Mozart had followed Sibelius’s classically proportioned Third Symphony in C major, the short-winded and arguably least memorable of his seven symphonies. Restraint and cool emotions were the order of its half-hour, even if its procession-like ending attempted to drum up some adrenaline to little avail.

Far more eventful was the First Symphony in E minor, which received a fine and polished reading under Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu’s experienced guiding hands. A pity that many in the audience had cleared the hall post-Melvyn Tan, leaving gaping lacunae in the stalls. Further insult came when Li Xin’s magical opening clarinet solo was marred by some thoughtless Esplanade usher speaking very audibly into her walkie-talkie. Aren’t these people paid to maintain silence and decorum rather than to create a ruckus?

Through its emotional highs and lows, the performance was perfectly judged with svelte strings matched by burnished brass, all through to its big melody and final Tchaikovskyan climax. The balance of four Sibelius symphonies will be heard in two concerts next year, events to make time for.

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