Friday, 20 January 2012


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Wednesday (18 January 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 January 2012 with the title "Estonian folk music with a lavish touch".

SSO’s first Gala Concert of 2012 was conducted by venerated Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, whose last appearance here was in 1987 when he led the Gothenberg Symphony Orchestra. Remembered for his solid, probing and viscerally exciting interpretations, he brought more of the same tonight.

No concert of his is complete without music of his homeland, on this occasion the very pleasing Estonian Dance Suite by Eduard Tubin. This is folk music at its simplest yet lavishly scored, with ringing harp accompaniment for the short opener, and the central movement’s horn melody taken up by a succession of solo instruments, before closing with bounding energy not dissimilar to Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance in the final dance.

The main work was Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Not again, one might exclaim, but Järvi’s version was worth many listens. It was expansive in breadth yet possessed a dramatic tension that made the four movements coalesce into a gripping whole. Uniting this was the opening motto theme, solemn and lugubrious on first hearing, but transformed through the passage of time.

While the first movement rumbled in throes of angst, the slow movement radiated warmth. First the low strings providing a comforting sonic hug, ushering in Han Zhang Chou’s splendid French horn solo that was a highlight. The smooth lilting grace of the third movement reminded all that Tchaikovsky was a ballet composer par excellence.

The finale came as one overarching sweep, with the motto theme re-stated, then undergoing a thrilling baptism of fire before emerging in a valedictory march of triumph, which sees the usually morose Tchaikovsky at his smiling best. It was clearly a performance worth remembering.

Before the interval, Russian violinist Vadim Repin emoted in Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto. Bread and butter for this greying virtuoso who retains the chubby cheeks of youth, his big tone carried the opening G minor melody first heard unaccompanied, and then the lyrical sweetness of the slow movement. He went for broke in the manic dance of the finale, playing faster than anybody or any recording in memory. Exciting it certainly was, but was that really necessary?

His encore was almost impromptu. Accompanied by orchestral pizzicatos, he launched into a series of variations on Carnival of Venice, while conductor Järvi kept beat behind the strings. Järvi also had a plush encore of his own, highlighting lush SSO strings in Sibelius’s Andante Festivo. If the mission of musicians was to make people happy, the audience certainly had its fill.

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