Monday, 6 May 2013


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (4 May 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 May 2013 with the title "Sizzling sister act".

Singapore Symphony Orchestra gala concerts invariably rely on star allure, and there are no bigger names in the piano duo scene than the French Labeque Sisters. Their first appearance in Singapore since 1994 (when they last played a duo recital at Victoria Concert Hall), drew a sizeable audience for their performance of Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos.

Looking as if they had not aged a day from 19 years ago, the duo brought a scintillating brilliance to this relatively short work of typically Gallic wit. Quality reigned over quantity as one expected. Katia, dressed in bright red and six inch stilettos, was the physically more expressive of the two, but there was nothing to separate her from Marielle, the more laid back sib clad in black.

Incisive articulation and razor-keen reflexes characterised Poulenc’s eclectic conception, which headily combined Stravinskyesque neoclassicism, Mozartean simplicity, dancehall frivolities and exoticisms by simulating the Balinese gamelan and metallophones. All this came with dizzying aplomb, each musical joke flying in rapid succession. Staid Poulenc is not good Poulenc, the duo proved so dazzlingly.

Egged on by the audience that yearned for more of the same, and conductor Shui Lan who sat expectantly in the wings, the Labeques played three encores. Bernstein’s Jet Song (West Side Story) taking on a boogie woogie stride, Ravel’s Fairy’s Garden (Mother Goose Suite) and Adolfo Berio’s uproarious Polka certainly helped prolong the applause.   

The rest of the concert was devoted to dance music, opening with four pieces from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo And Juliet. Drawn from three suites, the movements did not follow the sequence of the story but made more musical sense. Lovely solos from violist Zhang Manchin and concertmaster-for-the-evening Roy Theaker tugged on heartstrings in Romeo and Juliet Before Parting, while the brass boldly prevailed over the violence in The Death of Tybalt to emphatically close the set.   
The short second half was devoted to a rarity, the Suite from Florent Schmitt’s Le Tragedie de Salome (The Tragedy of Salome). Its inspiration, Robert d’Humieres’s poem diverges from the Oscar Wilde play in that his heroine was chaste and remorseful, rather than the raving necrophiliac of Richard Strauss’s opera.

Sumptuous beauty rather than orgiastic lashings was evident from its outset, the mournful theme from Elaine Yeo’s unerring cor anglais set the tone in this score of Debussy-like impressionistic hues coloured with Wagnerian harmonies. Even if the music was not immediately grasped, it soon grew on the ears with each unfolding episode.

The entire ballet would have lasted an hour, but this half-hour suite in two discernible sections did not outstay its welcome, bonded together by a strong thematic unity. Conductor Shui’s pacing of its various undulations was masterly, and when the climax finally arrived in the Dance of Terror, it did so with great immediacy. It was said that Stravinsky admired greatly this work before setting out on his epochal The Rite Of Spring. Little surprise, as the ever-subtle Frenchman made the Russian seem ever like the barbarian.  

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