Monday, 27 February 2012

SSO Concert:The Sebelius Symphonies: Nos.4 & 5 / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (24 February 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 February 2012 with the title "Every phrase freshly minted".

The Fourth and Fifth Symphonies of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius make for an exhausting listen when heard together in a same sitting. Imagine what it must be like for the performers on stage or the conductor, even if he happens to be the renowned Sibelius interpreter Okko Kamu.

His insights into the enigmatic Fourth Symphony, one so elusive that it reveals only some of its secrets some of the time, translated into a slickly delivered performance even if one still remained baffled after this hearing. The low strings which opened the work provided an atmospheric hush, aided by Principal Cellist Ng Pei Sian’s rich and sonorous solo. This set the tone for the most forbidding of works that ran close to 40 minutes.

Its themes, terse and austere as the Arctic winter, do not lend themselves to easy memory. Following its glacial pace was like a trudge knee-deep in snow, but one had to rely on Kamu as expert guide, to negotiate each treacherous musical crevasse and precarious ice-bridge without encountering disaster.

It was trying but not without its rewards. The slow third movement built inexorably to a sublime climax, one that did not seem plausible earlier, and the finale had a cogency that seemed definitive until its puzzlingly subdued end. This reaction against convention, almost an anti-symphony, was Sibelius’s unique vision of staring into a void.

The Fifth Symphony initially sounded as if cut from the same fabric, except it was to have a totally different outcome. This was after all the seed of Kamu’s love affair with the SSO when he conducted on his debut here some 27 years ago. Dark gave way to light in this far more accommodating work, with the splendid quartet of French horns providing the chiming refrain to a blazing conclusion.

In between all of this was the 19-year-old British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor’s original and compelling take on Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. That all the notes fell comfortably within his prodigious fingers was no surprise. What was, however, was his sensitivity and prescience of all things musical, making every phrase and gesture count and sounding freshly minted.

Like an ultimate form of chamber music, he knew when to blend in and when to exert himself. The Intermezzo was a masterclass in the art of conversation with the orchestra, and the finale’s off-kilter waltz traipsed unerringly and brilliantly. His encore, Rachmaninov’s salon-like Polka de V.R., offered a delightful sleight of hand. This youngster is already a master.

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