Friday, 14 March 2014


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Wednesay (12 March 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 March 2014 with the title "Treat of Stradivarius".

There is a famous recording on the old Philips label where Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons with violinist Salvatore Accardo is played by an ensemble formed wholly of Stradivarius instruments. Such an arrangement is a reality in Singapore because virtually the entire string player population at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory plays on instruments loaned by The Rin Collection, one of the world’s great repositories of historical instruments.

Any concert by the Conservatory Strings thus becomes an unmitigated treat, as with this one which paired the four most famous violin concertos by Vivaldi with The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires of the late Argentine tango-master Astor Piazzolla. Unlike another famous recording, this time by Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica on the Nonesuch label, the two sets were played separately, with a different violinist leading in each season.

Xu Minjia (above) took centrestage in Vivaldi’s Spring, her firm tone, healthy vibrato and incisive playing was lit up with smiles aplenty. Displaying equal adroitness was Shi Xiaoxuan (below) in Summer, whose frequent glances to her partners showed that she was one sensitive to the fine balance of chamber music making.

Conservatory Head of Strings Qian Zhou (above), was the most expressive and animated of the soloists, with her trenchant response in the outer movements of Autumn matching the fiery colours of her skirt. The central movement provided an interlude of respite with tasteful improvisatory playing by Li Churen on the harpsichord. The annual cycle was completed with David Loke (below) as a most assured and engaging leader in Winter, with a body language that intimated he was also having a smashing good time.

Piazzollas’s tango-based Seasons, as conceived by Leonid Desyatnikov, began with Summer and ended with Spring. In it, the Russian arranger liberally peppered the score with outlandish solo cadenzas and cheeky quotations from Vivaldi woven into the fabric. 

These challenges were taken up to hilt by soloists Li Ruoyao, Qian again, Oleksandr Korniev and Adam Wu, each bringing their own version of virtuosity. Not to be overlooked was the big role by cellist Wang Zihao, who played counter-melodies and cadenzas, sounding like the perfect foil for the violinists.

The eight seasons would have made a fine programme on its own, but there was the added attraction of Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings in the second half. Given the pedigree of the instruments and prowess of ensemble, there was a palpable warmth and richness of sonority through its five movements.

Performing without a conductor, the sense of togetherness that united the eighteen players was infectious in the lyrical and laid back opening, through the lilting waltz and vivacious Scherzo. Even if the intonation was slightly off at the beginning of the Larghetto slow movement, this was soon forgotten as the music built to an impassioned climax. The rollicking Finale, overflowing with the joie de vivre of youth and exuberance, brought the concerto to a satisfying close. Want to hear more Strads? Watch this space. 

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