Monday, 14 October 2013

BRAHMS The Symphonies / The Philharmonic Orchestra / Review

The Philharmonic Orchestra
School of the Arts Concert Hall
Friday (11 October 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 October 2013

The Philharmonic Orchestra under its music director Lim Yau has a habit of performing works in cycles. It was the first orchestra to survey full symphony cycles of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and Sibelius at the Esplanade. For its young players and audiences, there is that fulfilling sense of achievement and completeness having reached certain landmarks and putting a seal on them.

The four symphonies of Johannes Brahms were performed in two concerts held four weeks apart. The first evening on 13 September saw the First and Fourth Symphonies, arguably the giants of the tetralogy, in the proverbial can. This evening was the cycle’s completion, with the Second and Third Symphonies, subtler but no lesser works, being heard.

There was good reason to have the symphonies played in reverse chronological order. The Third in F major (Op.90) is less showy and ends on a retiring, subdued note. The orchestra, scaled down from the usual size for Romantic symphonies, produced a leaner sound which was by no means lightweight. Fewer strings meant that the woodwinds and brass were more exposed, but this not an issue because they were mostly excellent.

Tempos were generally brisker, and there was no sluggishness posing as monumentality. The first theme, quoting from the Spring Symphony of Brahms’s mentor Robert Schumann, was well stated and the ensuing development yielded some really exciting playing all around. The big test came in the familiar third movement Poco Allegretto, where its gravity and elegiac character was not fully realised, but the solo French horn shone through confidently.

Following the intermission was the Second Symphony in D major (Op.73), the opening of which this listener used to cringe during the early years of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. The slow introduction invariably revealed wayward intonation from the French horns in those days, but the quartet of hornists of The Philharmonic today, fearless and totally steady, can hold their heads high.

They were not the only ones, with the strings also bringing out the sunshine in the first movement’s lyrical second subject. Jasper Goh’s flute and Veda Lin’s oboe had important solos, which were dispatched with much character and little fuss. Virtuosos were to be found wherever one cared to look and listen.

If there were a minor quibble, the darkly-hued slow movement exhibited more light than shade. Quite ironically, some hall technician had forgotten to turn off the house lights until the chirpy third movement was well underway. There was a brief stir of mirth in the audience which mirrored the witty repartee on stage.

The finale, tautly held together under conductor Lim’s firm guiding hand, rightly closed the symphony and cycle in a blaze of triumph. Could one hope for a Brahms concerto cycle (two piano concertos, one violin concerto and the unique Double Concerto) from these dedicated completists anytime soon? 

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