Friday, 5 October 2012


University Cultural Centre Theatre
Wednesday (3 October 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 October 2012 with the title "Naughty but nice closing with Waltzing Matilda".

This piano recital could have been titled “A Tale of Two Classmates” for Russian composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin were close contemporaries, shared the same teachers and graduated from Moscow Conservatory in the same cohort with gold medals. However their music took on distinctly divergent paths.

Rachmaninov remained a Romantic for life while Scriabin’s experiments with straining tonality ushered in 20th century musical modernism. Australia-born British pianist Geoffrey Saba’s recital was a treatise on their contrasting fates and fortunes.

He began with Rachmaninov’s five Morceaux de Fantaisie Op.3, early works with strong whiffs of salon about them. Rearranging the order of play, the opening Elegie oozed Slavic melancholy, contrasted with playful whimsy of the Serenade and the wistful Melodie. Then came the infamous C sharp minor Prelude, Rachmaninov’s most popular solo number bar none, which Saba built to a robust chordal climax, before closing with the riotously tongue-in-cheek Polichinelle.   

Before latecomers could settle into their seats, he crept into the murky, mysterious pages of Scriabin’s late poem Vers La Flamme (Towards The Flame), a fulminating crescendo that spewed and spluttered into a final conflagration. Horowitz described it in terms of nuclear fission and the atomic bomb, while Saba detonated it with an inexorable finality.

The final Five Preludes Op.74 followed like an afterthought, aphoristic and almost atonal utterings all. Scriabin’s earlier Fourth Sonata in two short movements closed the first half. Saba kept it light fingered for most part, but its ecstatic flight lacked that critical lift-off, with the lapses almost certainly exacerbated by jet-lag.

The entire second half was devoted to Rachmaninov’s longest solo work, his monumental First Sonata in D minor. Its 45 minutes played out like a symphony in three movements, inspired by the Faust legend. If the first movement seemed rambling by half, it was for good reason as Saba built up the protagonist’s struggle in his pact with the Devil like an enormous arch, gripping and unrelenting in its vice-like hold.

The slow movement was all tenderness before the Mephistophelean finale which was launched into with all guns blazing. Rachmaninov’s motto Dies Irae theme appeared as expected, now as a demonic march, hastening its wild ride into Hades. Despite the odd slips and missed notes, this hell-for-leather performance must be hailed for its Herculean effort and sense of inevitability. As of tonight, there will have been only three performances of this rare masterpiece in Singapore.

As an encore, Scriabinesque chords greeted and closed Stephen Hough’s transcription of The Waltzing Matilda, a sly tribute to Saba’s homeland, which brought on knowing smiles of recognition in the audience. Naughty but nice.

This concert was presented as part of the ExxonMobil Campus Concerts series. Photographs courtesy of NUS Centre for the Arts. 

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