Thursday, 20 March 2014

BRAHMS PIANO QUINTET / T'ang Quartet & Melvyn Tan / Review

Melvyn Tan & T’ang Quartet
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (18 March 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 March 2014

It was a free and non-ticketed concert, and an almost capacity-filled hall witnessed a bit of history taking place. This was the first ever collaboration between Singapore’s pre-eminent pianist Melvyn Tan and the land’s best-known chamber group, the T’ang Quartet. In the F minor Piano Quintet by Johannes Brahms, sparks flew but that was only part of the story.

The quartet, comprising violinists Ng Yu Ying and Ang Chek Meng, violist Lionel Tan and cellist Leslie Tan, has always held a love for Czech music. This was in large part due to its former-teacher and mentor, the now-retired former SSO Principal violist Jiri Heger, a true Bohemian in every sense of the word.

In Leos Janacek’s First String Quartet, also known as the Kreutzer Sonata after Tolstoy’s novella, the foursome got to the heart of its rather elusive idiom. Unusual that it comprises four slow movements, its darkly shaded pages bared an inner soul of intimacy and seething disquiet, for which violence seemed the only resolution.

The playing was ardent and vigorous, yet tempered with a myriad of nuances that reflected emotional turmoil. Thematic motifs were short and pithy, often repeated to poignant effect, while passages of wiry sul ponticello, an unnerving device created by bowing near the bridge, added to the underlying tension. Even as the music built to a heightened crescendo, its ending was paradoxically quiet, a consummation of the work’s conflicts and contradictions.

Eschewing the customary intermission, the concert continued directly into the Brahms quintet. With pianist and string players being in one mind, the performance was an intensely musical one. The balance of sound was close to ideal, with the work’s understated instrumental virtuosity firmly placed to one side.

The serious opening movement brooded and then growled in its development section, contrasted with the oasis of serenity in the Andante slow movement which blossomed to a life-affirming climax. Then the fireworks erupted in the Scherzo’s syncopated march, which for the benefit of listeners was repeated in the score with an increased vehemence. Between this was a contrasting trio of heroic proportions, with which the five players lapped up in all its pompous swagger.

The finale opened with some of the German composer’s darkest and most chilling music, and if there is a more dramatic portrayal, this pair of ears has yet to experience it. The work’s rollicking close also provided the thrill and frisson that epitomised the best of chamber music. The applause was long and loud, so Tan and the T’ang’s encored the latter half of the Scherzo. The second round was just as satisfying as the first.  

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