Tuesday, 1 April 2014

MAHLER'S FOURTH / Singapore Symphony Orchestra Chamber Series / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
SOTA Concert Hall
Sunday (30 March 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 April 2014 with the title "Fresh twist to Mahler favourites".

Just three days before, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra had performed Arnold Schoenberg’s grandiloquent transcription of Brahms’s First Piano Quartet for large orchestra under the baton of Chinese conductor Yu Long. This afternoon, the reverse arrangement took place with Erwin Stein’s chamber version of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony by the same forces.

The inspiration was again Schoenberg’s, under the aegis of his Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna which ran subscription concerts of new music for select members of the establishment. Stein was Schoenberg’s student, and his 1921 arrangement was to shrink the orchestra to its bare bones without losing the spirit of the original.

The Fourth Symphony (1900) was Mahler’s shortest, lightest and least bombastic symphony, thus amenable to “downsizing”. Just eight string players (five violins, one each of viola, cello and bass), three woodwinds, two percussionists, piano and harmonium were assembled for this Singapore premiere, involving the orchestra’s principal musicians.

Despite the diminution of size, this was not “Mahler lite”, but a fresh way of re-listening to an old favourite. The chirpy repeated woodwind chords at its opening were replaced by the piano but the rustic tinkling of sleigh bells remained. Textures became more transparent, often with just one instrument to a part, and there was to be no room for error.

On this front, the accuracy and quality of solo playing was never in doubt. Tempos were no swifter, although a further degree of lightness could have been expected in certain passages. The allusion in the first movement to the opening trumpet theme of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony could have also been better delineated.

Guest concertmaster Lu Wei artfully alternated between two violins (including one tuned one tone higher) in the Scherzo to simulate “Friend Death fiddling” in a macabre dance, the kind of grotesquery Mahler was so fond of. The sinister effect juxtaposed with the beguiling sentimentality of the Landler (country dance) rhythm lent the feel of the ironic, hence was intentionally unsettling.

The expansive slow movement revealed more strengths of the playing, with Ng Pei Sian’s cello accompanied by Guennadi Mouzyka’s bass leading a succession of lovely solos, including Zhang Zhen Shan’s violin and Pan Yun’s oboe. The gradual build up to the impassioned climax yielded just about the concert’s best moments.

Without a break, the finale opened with Chinese soprano Rao Lan striding on to sing Das Himmlischer Leben (The Heavenly Life), a child’s vision of paradise and its imagined delights. Her German was idiomatic and well-enunciated, and demeanour playful and suitably childlike. The only Mahler’s symphony to end quietly and cheerfully, there was a healthy pause of silence before the ensuing applause. Here was clearly a keyed-in and respectful audience, possibly the best one the music could hope for. 

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