Monday, 28 January 2013

SSO Concert: SUMMER NIGHTS / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (25 January 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 January 2013 with the title "Summer of vocal fireworks".

The German soprano Juliane Banse and her husband conductor Christoph Poppen have appeared with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on numerous occasions, but never in a concert performance together in Singapore. This evening set things straight, but there was little doubt who was the outright star, and who was the sympathetic supporting cast.

In Berlioz’s cycle Les nuits d’été (The Summer Nights), Banse flexed her wide expressive and dramatic range through its six songs in French. In the opening Villanelle, lightness and nimbleness in her articulation was matched by the orchestra’s subtle pulsing accompaniment. Banse was in full control, as Poppen kept the orchestral forces at bay, and no word or nuance was allowed to be submerged.

The four central songs were all slow, and it was Banse’s imaginative colouring and phrasing that prevented the music from lagging. A lovely cantabile in Le spectre de la rose (The Ghost of a Rose), darker shades for Sur les lagunes (On the Lagoon), an operatic intensity that distinguished Absence, and the ability to sustain high registers for extended periods in Au Cimetiere (In the Cemetery) made this performance a memorable one.

The final L’ile inconnue (The Unknown Isle), breezy and carefree, provided some sort of rapture, and it seemed a pity that the sublime work had to end. Banse returned after the interval for the vocal fireworks of Beethoven’s Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? (Accursed One! Where are you hurrying off to?) from the opera Fidelio. She shook off the sonic challenge of three French horns and leapt heroically to a climactic high.  

The concert began and ended with the music of Mendelssohn. His Ruy Blas Overture, a favourite curtain-raiser of the orchestra’s, showcased brass fanfares and svelte strings to best effect. The Third Symphony, nicknamed the Scottish, was the main work. Although not strictly programmatic, its travelogue-like musical narrative made it an enjoyable listen.

Poppen, who conducted from memory, kept the music flowing with well-judged speeds. The solemn beginning leading to a tempest-tossed Allegro conjured up a vision of ancient legends, while Ma Yue’s jaunty clarinet lit up the swift highland dance of the scherzo. It was the warrior-like legacy of Braveheart and his ilk that pervaded the final movements, with the flying colours of Saint Andrew vividly emblazoned for the vigourous and valedictory close.

One may be accused of an over-active imagination when listening to this music, but when it is as well played as this, the occasional indulgence is a forgivable sin.                       

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