Monday, 6 August 2012



Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (3 August 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 August 2012 with the title "Thrilling rush from Rachmaninov".

It is unusual to attend a concert where all the music performed is in the same key signature. Even rarer if that happens to be sombre D minor, a favourite of Sergei Rachmaninov, that Russian purveyor of doom and gloom. Yet there was nary a hint of monotony in a programme which began with the Scherzo in D minor, Rachmaninov’s first orchestral work composed at the age of just 14.

Crisp chirpy woodwinds opened this light Mendelssohnian jaunt which flitted around a little Slavic melody, a delightful bit of counterpoint at play. The Singapore Symphony responded like a well-oiled dynamo, generating a perpetual motion that wound its way for just five brief but eventful minutes.   

The major work was the underrated First Symphony, which Rachmaninov discarded after its disastrous premiere in 1897 thus plunging him into a deep depression. Its main subject was the Dies Irae, the medieval chant of death and judgement, which in turn was prefaced by his own “Vengeance” motif, one that recurs like a Wagnerian curse. Despite being his most original music, it was savaged by the critics, including one who referred to it as the Seven Plagues of Egypt.

Conducted from memory by SSO Music Director Shui Lan, its heart-wrenching pathos and violent mood swings made Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony sound jolly by comparison. Shui has become a master of musical manipulation, whether teasing out tear-jerking woodwind solos or riding imperiously over defiant marches. The slow third movement, in particular, was a masterclass of bringing out these brutal extremes.

Brilliant brass heralded the finale’s wild ride, whose sense of inevitability fuelled the performance to a feverish climax and its Mahlerian conclusion. Only Shostakovich in his Fifth Symphony (also in D minor) had milked such excesses of emotional catharsis with equal vehemence. This breathtaking view of the symphony, last performed here in 1987, was well worth the wait.  

In between both Rachmaninov works was Sibelius’s Violin Concerto with Qian Zhou, Head of Strings at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, as soloist. Her slender and diminutive frame belied a commanding presence and voluminous sound coaxed from her 1757 J.B.Guadagnini violin. From a mere whisper in the still opening to the fortissimos of slashing cadenzas, her reading was a cataclysmic meeting of fire and ice.

There was risk-taking aplenty in the finale’s romp, which almost threatened to fly off the ledge, but isn’t thrill-seeking and a sense of danger what makes live performances memorable? Her generous encore of Halvorsen’s Passacaglia in duet with SSO Principal violist Zhang Manchin was icing on the cake. G minor also made for a nice change on this D minor dominated evening. 

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