Monday, 25 March 2013


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (22 March 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 March 2013 with the title "Coaxing Russian out of Singapore orchestra".

When the veteran Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky and his pianist wife Viktoria Postnikova took on the music of Brahms with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra exactly one year ago, the stodgy concert left this reviewer with mixed feelings. In this all-Rachmaninov programme, all remnants of reservation had evaporated like the morning dew. By putting an authoritative stamp on the music, the octogenarian maestro got the orchestra to bring out its Russianness.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was the musical heir of Tchaikovsky. Despite their age difference, the two Russians were good friends and colleagues. Tchaikovsky mentored Rachmaninov, so it was not a great surprise that his overriding sense of lugubriousness rubbed on the younger man.

The concert opened with the early symphonic fantasy The Rock, inspired by a short Chekhov story, a work not unlike Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overtures. Flautist Evgueni Brokmiller whipped up its agile recurrent motif with the greatest of ease, leading to the work’s brooding main theme. The ensuing development, with musical narrative coaxed to its climax and near breaking point, showed how well the orchestra responded to Rozhdestvensky’s baton.

Next was the rarely performed Fourth Piano Concerto, a late work Rachmaninov composed while permanently exiled from his homeland. Its darker, dissonant shades and aggressive posture meant it was unlikely to relive the popularity of its predecessors. Despite that, Postnikova carved out a trenchant and inspired reading that was totally persuasive.

With opening striding chords slightly off kilter in its swagger, she proved no slave to the metronome. It was Rachmaninov’s nostalgia, evident from quotations of past works, that came to the fore. Witness the second movement, where rays of sunshine from the short but glorious melody from an earlier Etude-tableau penetrated the gloom that came before.

Her technique and quicksilver reflexes held up well for the helter-skelter finale, which closed this Cinderella of a concerto on a violent and tumultuous note. With prolonged applause, she obliged with a thunderous reading of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor (Op.3 No.2), the composer’s most dreaded encore because audiences refused to leave until after he had played it.

The theme of nostalgia continued into the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninov’s last work and de facto fourth symphony. Taken with a broad and expansive pace, Rozhdestvensky demonstrated that the first movement was marked Non Allegro (Not fast) after all. Tang Xiao Ping’s saxophone sang with a heartrending beauty, while the First Symphony’s once menacing main theme was relived, but now tamed and mellowed.

The second movement’s ghostly waltz teased and insinuated, heralded by excellent muted brass. It was the finale’s chorus, quoting the Dies Irae chant and his own Story Of The Resurrection from the choral Vespers, that truly resonated on all fronts. In charting his swansong, Rachmaninov bared his longing for past with an unapologetic fervour. Rozhdestvensky and his charges for the evening emphatically reminded one and all of that fact.         

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