Monday, 16 January 2012

HAROLD IN ITALY / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (14 January 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 January 2012 with the title "Crashing chords from Haefliger".

It is a rare occasion that one gets to hear two full length concertos in a single concert. That luxury was afforded as the two major works by Berlioz and Brahms were totally different. The term concerto may be used rather loosely here, as Berlioz’s Harold In Italy is more like a four-movement symphony.

The famous story was that he had written the work for the violin virtuoso Paganini, who rejected it because he was not required to “play all the time”. In other words, it was too simple, too non-virtuosic. The fact that a chair was provided for viola soloist Zhang Manchin on centrestage said it all, as she sat through long stretches of orchestral tuttis.

When the SSO’s principal violist (left) was called upon, she delivered with a throaty and sonorous beauty, as much as the Cinderella of stringed instruments allowed. Hers was a role of poetic presence, rather than spewing pyrotechnics, reflecting the more introspective musings of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold on his continental adventures.

Ably supporting her were other soloists, harpist Gulnara Mashurova in the opening mountain scene, and Elaine Yeo’s plaintive cor anglais in the Abruzzi villager’s serenade, who lent further sublime moments. The swashbuckling bravado came instead from Shui Lan’s orchestra, whose merry rather than bloodthirsty Orgy Of The Brigands pulled out all the stops.

The symphonic architecture and writing of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto may be seen as his first attempt at writing a symphony. The dramatic opening orchestral tutti, all lightning flash and thunderbolts, set the monumental tone for Swiss pianist Andreas Haefliger’s (left) disarmingly calm entry. With nerves settled, this soon worked itself into one of the most authoritative and stentorian of performances.

His big-boned playing of barnstorming octaves and crashing chords was equal to and sometimes surmounted the orchestra’s outsized gestures, and a titanic struggle ensued. Fired by his mentor Robert Schumann’s suicidal plunge into the Rhine, the passionate angst was only equalled by the tenderness and spirituality of the slow movement, an early manifestation of feelings for Schumann’s widow Clara.

Haefliger’s near-faultless account encompassed all of these, rounding up with an exciting romp of the final Rondo, where the orchestra backed up to the hilt with much immediacy and responsive playing. So was it two concertos or two symphonies heard this evening? The greatness of the music and quality of playing made these academic issues moot and ultimately irrelevant.

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