Monday, 7 November 2011

SSO Concert: Ashkenazy and the SSO / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (4 November 2011)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 November 2011 with the title "Fingers of steel".

Although the legendary Russian-born pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has previously performed in Singapore, this gala concert marked his SSO conducting debut. The mere mention of his name filled the house, but his largesse was to share the limelight with the orchestra and a young soloist.

For months, the latter remained nameless, billed as the Winner of the 3rd Hong Kong International Piano Competition with a piano concerto “to be announced”. Early this week, that pianist was unveiled as the 29-year-old Italian Giuseppe Andaloro. Possessing fingers of steel cushioned by a velvety soft touch, his rendition of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto was one to remember.

The opening chords were taken expansively, setting the tone for bittersweet melancholy contrasted with high drama. His projection from the keyboard was uniformly excellent, roaring above dense orchestral textures for ecstatic climaxes yet possessing the lightness of a gentle sigh in quiet solo passages. Prodigious finger technique told not the whole story, but the ability to express emotions without words made the performance complete.

All this would be nought if not for the orchestra’s sensitive yet telling contribution. Marc-Antoine Robillard’s horn solo near the end of the first movement, flautist Jin Ta and clarinettist Ma Yue in the slow movement underlined the players’ individual prowess. Lush strings accompanying Andaloro’s rapturous musings also provided moments to die for.

The finale afforded display for some of the most lyrical pianism thought possible and the requisite barnstorming, with the audience eating from his hands. The rare encore of Schumann’s Widmung in Sergio Fiorentino’s transcription was further proof that Andaloro was no off-the-assembly-line virtuoso.

Andaloro plays Schumann's Widmung (as transcribed by his former teacher Sergio Fiorentino), and dedicated to the Singapore audience.

The second half belonged to Ashkenazy as he took his charges on an urgently driven and exciting ride in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Magnificent brass went for the jugular in the opening Fate motif, the work’s recurring theme, as screws were turned ever so inexorably through its angst filled pages.

The Russianness of this interpretation was not in the faithful recounting of folk melodies but the playing out of extremes in its vast dynamics. The plaintive oboe solo of the slow movement, massed pizzicato strings in the scherzo and the finale’s headlong charge all made for significant milestones. Ashkenazy is not the biggest of conductors but he garnered terrific energy and drew a massive sound. Never before has the orchestra been coaxed to take a collective bow alongside the conductor, but the occasion not only deserved it, but demanded it.

SSO and Ashkenazy take a collective bow.

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