Sunday, 25 March 2012

SSO Concert: Brahms' Seconds / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (22 March 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 24 March 2012 with the title "Sloppy seconds"

The title of the concert refers to the coupling of the Second Piano Concerto and Second Symphony by Johannes Brahms, which made for a very long evening. This was further exacerbated by the very slow tempos adopted for both works by guest conductor, the distinguished Russian octogenarian Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

There is a fine line drawn between the ruminations of profundity and being plain draggy, and both performances straddled across the divide on innumerable episodes. The highly exposed French horn solo at the outset of the concerto, tentative and marred by a spilt note, made one fear the worse. The pianist Viktoria Postnikova (or Mrs Rozhdestvenska) played from a score, and to put it plainly, needed that safety net.

Her opening cadenza was powerfully wrung out, reaffirming she has both the strength and endurance to weather the course. However accuracy and subtlety did not seem a major consideration, as there were wrong notes aplenty in the first movement. Where she was more confident, she stamped her authority with the single-mindedness of goose-stepping Red Guards.

All this made for a bewildering performance which had moments of greatness mixed with the rough and ready tumble of a student rehearsal. Only in the slow movement, where Principal Cellist Ng Pei-Sian’s sublime solo sang with unspeakable beauty, did everybody seemed galvanised to be in perfect sync. Postnikova did get better and sprinkled the jolly finale with fairy gold dust, by which time the concerto clocked in a staggering 53 minutes when it ended. There was even time for an encore, Schumann’s Träumerei, which hemmed and hawed for all its simplicity.

Similarly, the Second Symphony languished in its sheer expansiveness for a full 50 minutes. Imagine the strain on the French horns, which have the most unenviable task of breath control. Principal Han Chang Chou and his quartet acquitted themselves most admirably, coming on cue perfectly and supporting with spot-on intonation.

From murky depths of the protracted grew saplings of very fine and poised playing, which Rozhdestvensky (left) conducting on the floor (as opposed to the podium), tended and watered with much care and love. There was an emerging radiance in the opening two movements, which culminated in a heady rush of passion for the finale. It may not have been the best of Second Symphony performances, but it was a memorable one. Great maestros tend to make these things happen.

N.B. The titles of Straits Times articles are not given by yours truly, but the copywriters of the newspaper, so occasional discrepancies do occur. I never used the word "sloppy" in this review, so a certain degree of latitude was employed in its title, perhaps to better capture the attention of readers.

No comments: