Esplanade Concert Hall
10 May 2013)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 May 2013 with the title "Magical mystery".
If the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s 2012-13 concert season was notable for one thing, it might well be remembered for the “invasion of British lady violinists”. In a short space of months, audiences got close and personal with Alina Ibragimova, Nicola Benedetti, Jennifer Pike, and now Chloë Hanslip. As all four afforded their listeners diverse kinds of musical pleasure, this reviewer is hardly complaining.
The diminutive former child prodigy Hanslip had arguably the most demanding concerto of all, Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto in B minor. Playing for about 50 minutes, it is the longest violin concerto in the core repertoire, trumping the Brahms (played by Ibragimova) and making Korngold and Mozart (from Benedetti and Pike respectively) seem lightweight by comparison.
To say Hanslip had both the technical assurance and physical reserves to weather its storms and stresses would be to put it mildly. She ripped through virtuosic thickets and probed its emotional recesses with much flair and aplomb. Her tone was bold and brawny, befitting the passion invested by the lovelorn composer, yet was able to vary her palette to express wistfulness and nostalgia on a whim.
While one marvelled at her stamina in the sprawling first movement, true tenderness reigned in the central slow movement, its long-breathed lines sustained by an admirable control, never lapsing into sentimentality. The mercurial finale had flashy acrobatics, but it was the dreamy cadenza, unusually accompanied by gently strummed tremolando strings producing a hushed quivering effect, which truly stuck in the mind. Both violinist and orchestra were in deep spiritual communion, always a good thing.
While British conductor Richard Armstrong’s harnessing of the ensemble provided perfect support in the concerto, his view of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) was no less gripping. Its momentous opening two minutes, evoking the sun’s rising and with it the dawn of humanity, could have sounded hackneyed, but the temptation was resisted.
Trumpets in unison for the ascending three-note motif representing “universal mystery” and Evelyn Lim’s pipe organ, from a palpable basal vibe to full-throated roar, made for good dramatics, but what followed was equally trenchant. Strauss’s art of thematic transformation and development kept the narrative thread alive, which ran in tandem with Nietzsche’s Superman seeking the meaning of life through his wandering, learning and the study of science.
Its culmination was the intoxicating dance-song in heady waltz rhythm, and its denouement with concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich’s violin taking the lead provided fine contrasts. As the world sleeps, the search for the “universal mystery continues through the night. The quiet and placid ending could have been handled more mystically, but that did not lessen the impact of its message.