Monday, 28 November 2011

THE LISZT CONCERTOS / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall

Saturday (26 November 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 November 2011 with the title "Attacking with force and fury".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to the Franz Liszt bicentenary came late in the year, but it could not have been better timed with the visit of British virtuoso Stephen Hough. To witness both of the Hungarian-born phenom’s piano concertos in the same evening was a luxury, but with Hough at the helm, it was added pleasure.

Make no mistake, the concert was conducted by the young Singaporean maestro Darrell Ang, but it was Hough who dictated the proceedings in the First Piano Concerto in E flat major. From the outset, the work was taken by the scruff of the neck, from which there was no let off. Rarely has the opening octaves and cadenza been attacked with such force and fury.

Forget the few wrong notes in the fray, these were swept away by the oncoming tsunami of sound. There was some respite in the short nocturne-like second movement, but then it was action stations and adrenaline on overdrive all the way to the final bar. Credit also goes to percussionist Mark Suter for his all-important contribution on the humble triangle; timing it to perfection is far more difficult than one imagines.

The Second Piano Concerto in A major, the greater work of the two, provided more semblance of sanity. Not only is the piano better integrated with the orchestra, its unfolding narrative showed Hough to be more than flashy fingers. His overall finesse and magisterial control were a joy to behold, and there is no finer moment than that wonderful passage when he sensitively accompanied cellist Ng Pei Sian’s lovely solo.

After the fire and brimstone topped off with outrageous octave glissandi, there was even time for an encore. Hough’s own transcription of Dvorak’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, was touchingly dedicated to SSO’s former principal violist, the Czech-born Jiri Heger (left), who retires after 32 years of faithful service.

Without Beethoven, there would be no Liszt or Wagner. That was the thematic thread of the concert which began with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.2. It shares the same themes as the far better known and definitive Overture No.3, but made for fascinating listening with its thrilling build-up to the climatic offstage trumpet solo.

Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture and Venusberg Music closed the concert on a high, with conductor Ang’s direction emphasising on lightness and movement rather than solemn penitence. The concert’s muted ending more than made up for the revelry and wildness that came before.

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