Monday, 28 October 2013


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (25 October 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 28 October 2013 with the title "Britten scores with quirky charm".

Despite the fair number of recordings of Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto (Op.13) of 1938 that exist, it has never been performed in Singapore. That is until this evening, when 2013 Gramophone Award winning British pianist Steven Osborne threw off the gloves and took its white-knuckled challenges face on. It is one of the centenary-commemorated composer’s earlier, eclectic and more engaging scores.

The opening Toccata flashed across at a blistering pace, owing not a little to Prokofiev’s motoric and percussive brilliance, which Osborne realised with rhythmic precision and accuracy. The contrasting Waltz was more of a burlesque, with Zhang Manchin’s lilting viola solo and piquant contributions from piccolo and tambourine to begin.

The final revision of the third movement was performed, the original more discursive and improvisatory version giving way to the darkly introspective Impromptu and variations, which itself devolved into a ghostly little waltz along the way.

It is the quirky charms of the work that delighted, not least the over-the-top final March, full of mock heroics a la Shostakovich and a stampede of notes to close. Applause for Osborne (left) and the orchestra yielded yet another waltz as piano encore, from Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales.

The concert conducted by SSO Associate Conductor Jason Lai began with Wagner’s Prelude to Parsifal, a quiet work formed by a succession of spiritual meditations with the Dresden Amen as centrepiece. The unison in the strings was warm and homogeneous, well matched by beautifully burnished brass chorales which impressed with restraint and control.

Schumann’s Second Symphony in C major, his longest and most Beethovenian of four symphonies, could easily sound portentous and bloated. Not so this evening, with orchestral forces pared down to almost chamber size, the result being a performance of much freshness and vitality. Grandeur was not sacrificed by swifter tempos, instead the sense of movement and momentum was thrillingly heightened in the first movement’s development.

This perpetual motion was furthered in the free-wheeling Scherzo, which seemed scarcely plausible when accomplished at this speed. The relative gravity in the slow movement provided a stable anchor and for once, there was time to breathe and deeply imbibe its love message.

Schumann was fond of ciphers and encryptions in his music, and collectors of themes will recognise that within the glory-making of the finale, a quote from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To The Distant Beloved) boldly pronounced. With passions and hormones raging, the orchestra and Lai (above) at full flight made no secrets to the composer’s intentions as the symphony soared to a breathtaking close.    

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