Tuesday, 2 April 2013


Take 5
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (31 March 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 April 2013 with the title "5 take on Russian piano quintets".

There are about six piano quintets that are heard with any regularity in concert halls around the world today. So kudos go to local chamber group Take 5 for reaching its ninth concert without repeating a single work. But that also meant scouring the fringes of the repertoire, and the ensemble came up trumps with the Singapore premieres of two rarely-heard Russian piano quintets.

Anton Arensky (1861-1906) was a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and in turn was the teacher of Rachmaninov. His quintet in D major (1900) was the epitome of Romanticism and traditionalism, opening with a Tchaikovskyan melody in the usual sonata form. Not the most original or inspired of works, it nevertheless has a high charm factor, not least when the violin solos fall upon Foo Say Ming’s reliably steady and unfailingly sweet tone.

The slow movement’s theme and variations were not unlike those in Schubert’s Death And The Maiden, showcasing Chan Wei Shing’s cello in full bloom. The light-hearted scherzo, full of Mendelssohnian ebullience, was a playground for piano acrobatics which Lim Yan lapped up most gratefully. The finale, predictably for a schoolmaster, was textbook example of how to conjure up a fugue from earlier themes. Its apparent seriously was soon exhausted as the quintet ably wound up for a heady close.

Made of far sterner stuff was the Piano Quintet in F minor (1944) by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996), also known as Moisei Vainberg, the Polish-born Jewish composer who fled the Nazis by escaping into the Soviet Union. A close friend of Shostakovich, it was inevitable that his music would share the same introspection and dark mordant humour as the more famous Russian.

Curiously, the quintet opened with the piano playing a plainchant-like melody an octave apart, with the melancholy redolent of another Russian, Rachmaninov. How Weinberg used simple, even unremarkable motifs and built them into powerful statements was classic Shostakovich. The level of angst invested into its pages soon piled up, along with discords and dissonances, relieved time and again by attempts at satire and wit.

The central Presto revolved around a psychotic little waltz, but the starkest of Largos, built upon sustained and repressed rage revealed a bare-knuckled anger waiting to burst free. Its denouement was however a most peculiar of finales, with strings playing repeated notes a tone apart – like a demented version of Chopsticks – with the piano commenting in the background, before launching into the mock-gaiety of a highland jig.

Like the deliberately ambiguous finale of Shostakovich’s piano quintet composed four years earlier, Weinberg had found his own release. The members of Take 5, which also included second violinist Lim Shue Churn and violist Chan Yoong Han, delivered with a convincing aplomb and the straightest of faces. A standing ovation accorded by segments of the audience was rewarded with a welcome reprise of the Scherzo from Arensky’s Quintet, something far less intimidating.

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