Monday, 23 April 2012

SSO Concert: The Bartok Second / Review

Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (21 April 2012)
Singapore  Orchestra Symphony

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 April 2012 with the title "Fireworks end with Bartok's bang and smash".

The mere mention of the 20th century Hungarian composer Bela Bartok still strikes fear in the hearts of potential concert-goers today. Just witness the rows of empty seats at this evening’s concert, which began with four dances from the ballet Estancia (The Ranch) by Argentine Alberto Ginastera, sometimes described as the “Bartok of the Pampas”.

Conducted by the young Venezuelan maestro Christian Vasquez, this was a case of excellent programming as both composers made use of the folk idioms and dances of their native countries, crafted in an invigorating and often violent way.

The insistent and relentless rhythm of percussion fuelled three of the dances, with the furious and frenetic Malambo making for a most exuberant close. In between, the reflective Danza del Trigo (Wheat Dance)offered flautist Jin Ta and concertmaster Alexander Souptel the most elegant of solos, which they accepted with utmost grace.

Excellent wind and brass dominated the first movement of Bartok’s thorny Second Piano Concerto, a work of nightmarish difficulty to accompany, as they more than kept up with French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s steely fingers. This was an astonishing performance in many ways, most of all because all on deck were functioning beyond the mastery of correct notes. Each rapid cut and thrust by the soloist was matched by equally trenchant responses from the orchestra, all accomplished at a spellbinding speed.

The few moments of repose were afforded in the Adagio, where the hitherto silent strings produced the most evenly burnished sound to evoke the mysteries of the night. This made the hell-for-leather interlude – with piano and orchestra scurrying in all directions - even more exciting.

The brutal Allegro Barbaro–like romp of the finale completed a work that could be classical music’s equivalent of heavy metal. As a touch of supreme irony, the brilliant Bavouzet played as his encore Debussy’s genteel prelude, The Girl With Flaxen Hair. What extraordinary contrasts!

After the bang and smash of the first half, Dvorak’s affable Eighth Symphony seemed almost an anti-climax. It was a good performance overall, with no new insights to be proffered. Vasquez, like many of his prodigious generation, conducted totally from memory. A goodly and non-idiosyncratic pace started the first movement, and it continued merrily and untroubled from there.

Here is a leader who does not try and impose his own will on the score, but let the music speak for itself. Flautist Jin was called upon again for more intricate solos. As the pastorale of the slow movement gave way to a more boisterous Slavonic dance and the final procession, so did the ensemble step up to the plate to close on a high. For many, including this listener, the fireworks had ended with the Bartok.

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