Monday, 7 January 2013


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (5 January 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 January 2013 with the title "Zimerman wows with silky touches and fluid fingerwork".

Krystian Zimerman. Here is a name that can fill the Esplanade to the rafters, even if he is not playing either of Chopin’s piano concertos. On this occasion, his debut with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the choice of Witold Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto to commemorate the 20th century Polish composer’s birth centenary was  most apt.

Dedicated to and premiered by Zimerman himself in 1988, it deserves to be better known. Lutoslawski’s sound palette is both delicate yet pungent, and the highly transparent piano part wafted like ether through the orchestra’s still opening of harp, woodwind and string whispers. First we hear wisps, fragments and shards from the piano, and the semblance of a theme emerges like a nascent sun’s rays for an early climax in the first movement.

“Rachmaninov without tunes,” wrote one critic, but that view is just simplistic. The work is spread over four movements without a break. A mercurial scherzo and the ruminations in a slow movement’s soliloquy are discernible, so is a final passacaglia, as if in obeisance to classical form. But one needs to forget the theory and bask in Zimerman’s pianism, silky touches, crashing chords and astonishingly fluid fingerwork.

The 24 minutes or so held one in its thrall, and if atonal music could be made to sound so persuasive, even inviting, then a composer’s craft is vindicated. The tumultuous applause yielded two encores, thankfully not Chopin, but instead the coruscating first movement from Grazyna Bacewicz’s Second Sonata and Debussy’s shimmering Pagodes from Estampes.  

The first music to be played by the Singapore Symphony was Dvorak’s American Suite, five highly agreeable short movements cut from the same fabric as his New World Symphony. Native Indian melodies and Negro spirituals dressed up in Central European finery made for easy listening, and one was hard put to tell where Bohemia ended and Louisiana began.

The concert closed with Beethoven’s popular Seventh Symphony, supposedly routine repertoire but the performance was anything but ordinary. Conducted by Music Director Shui Lan with neither score nor baton, he took a decidedly brisk view to the classic. The slow introduction was light-footed but not lightweight, and the ensuing Vivace was exactly that, vivacious and a bit more.

The second movement’s Allegretto, the slowest movement of four, grew in stature and built to a heady climax. The final two movements raced off in breakneck pace, but this was not mindless velocity for its own sake but more an expression of exhilaration, which made the Trio’s hymn tune of the third movement all the more gratifying.

The breathless finale would not have been possible if not for the tower of strength that was guest timpanist Paul Philbert, formerly of the Malaysian Philharmonic, whose steadiness on the sticks at high speeds was an inspiration. It certainly was a Gala Concerto to remember.

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