Monday, 4 March 2013

SSO Concert: BRAHMS DOUBLED / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (1 March 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 March 2013 with the title "A perfect love match".

Concerts of all-German music are nothing unusual, but this one conducted by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu was of music that cast a backward glance to musical traditions of the past.

The 20th century German composer Paul Hindemith should no longer strike fear in the hearts of concert-goers, as his primary preoccupation was to emulate J.S.Bach. Thus his ballet suite Nobilissma Visione, inspired by the life of Francis of Assisi, had a ring of the familiar despite its mild dissonances.

Mellow strings, always a pride of the orchestra, shaded the Introduction with a lustrous patina. The mock-military March with Roberto Alvarez’s perky piccolo soon culminated in a busy fugue, while there was no disguising the passacaglia form in the striding finale which brought the work to a satisfying close.

Johannes Brahms was innovative in using the passacaglia to conclude his Fourth Symphony, but the Third Symphony in F major heard this evening was a little more traditional. His model was Beethoven, but with less angst and more objectivity.

There are reasons why this symphony is less popular than his other three. It is his least emotionally-wrought utterance, has two slow movements played in succession, and ends on a quiet note with a retiring variation of the virile opening theme.

Kamu refused to overplay its qualities, instead coaxing his forces to stay close to the middle of the road. The final outcome, while not boring its listeners, was one of overall safety. There were moments, however, in the central slow movements that genuinely touched.

The highlight of the evening was the performance of Brahms’s Double Concerto for violin and cello, featuring two SSO musicians. Violinist and Co-Leader Lynnette Seah is the orchestra’s longest serving player (since 1978), while cellist Ng Pei Sian is the orchestra’s youngest ever principal (born 1984). Age and experience were not an issue, as they blended beautifully together.

After the emphatic opening orchestral tutti, Ng’s big solo, weighty but delicately poised and possessed with a freedom as if improvised, set the tone. Despite awry intonation from French horns attempting to crash the party, Seah’s sweet-toned violin rose to meet the challenge. It was not so much a gauntlet, but a love-match.

Their interplay was delightful throughout, with neither seeking to outdo each other. In the slow movement, the even unison of its hymn-like melody was so wondrously weaved as to be nigh inseparable. It was left to the Hungarian-flavoured Rondo finale for both to bring out the fireworks. Their two encores together – Londonderry Air and Faure’s Pavane – were a testament to the art of listening to each other. That was just the perfect send-off.  


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