Sunday, 2 October 2011

EROICA / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (29 September 2011)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 1 October 2011 with the title "Eroica full of surprises".

Ever wondered what it was like when Beethoven’s First Symphony was first heard by a Viennese audience in the year 1800? The key was in homely C major, but the first notes conjured the jarring interval of a seventh, sure way of making its first listeners jump out of their seats. That was the composer’s intended reaction, and it still sounds startling to this day.

When one thought one knew Beethoven’s symphonies well, here was a concert to put surprise back into the music. Such was the vision of guest conductor Claus Peter Flor, Music Director of the Malaysian Philharmonic, who made everything sound fresh, as if the notes were still hot off the press.

This was not the slick, super-fast versions we are more accustomed to, but one of ultimate control, where every note and phrase was calculated to pique the ear and challenge all pre-conceptions. Moderate tempos were adopted for the First Symphony, deliberate enough for fine details to be heard, but never protracted for its own sake.

The stammering introduction of the fourth movement, another Beethovenian trick, led to the most mercurial of finales. Here the playing soared with a scarcely believable fluency and buoyancy, guided by Flor’s expressive bodily gestures and audible stamping on the podium.

Two emphatically punched out chords opened the Third Symphony in E flat major (Op.55), also known as the Eroica. The urgency and accuracy signalled one of the great performances in collective memory. Again, broadness of pacing in the first movement revealed the hero to be a very human one, prone to angst and other failings. Passion flowed unabated, never tainted by superficial or glib responses of any kind.

The funeral march brooded with a solemn mystery. Not for the faint at heart was its encompassing of widest possible dynamics, from pianissimo to fortissimo within a heartbeat. Each movement followed attacca, without break to the next, reliving the harrowing hairpins of a rollercoaster ride. If one sought respite, there was to be none, even if the superb trio of French horns brought on smiles aplenty for the fleet-footed scherzo.

The theme and variations of the finale was another show of over-arching virtuosity. It was not just a proficient delivery of notes but the all-embracing kind of unity of spirit that warmed the heart and stirred the soul. The SSO has been performing concerts just comprising symphonies of late. On this form, who really misses the concertos?

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