Tuesday, 26 May 2015

NORTHERN LIGHTS / Take 5 / Review

Review: Concert
Take 5 Piano Quintet
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (24 May 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 26 May 2015 with the title "Northern lights shine".

Northern Lights is the twelfth concert of piano quintets by the crack local chamber group Take 5. Given that as few as four piano quintets – by Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and Franck – are regularly performed in concert, this is an astonishing feat of curatorship. The focus this evening was on  Nordic music, with what were most likely Singaporean premieres of quintets by Christian Sinding (1856-1941) and Jean Sibelius (1865-1957). 

The Norwegian Sinding was one of those unfortunate “one-work wonders”, known only for his piano miniature Rustle Of Spring, beloved of amateur pianists because it sounds more difficult than it actually is. His Piano Quintet in E minor (1884) is a massive work, with four movements playing over 40 minutes. No amateur could possibly survey this, given its pretentions as a virtuoso piano concerto with multitudes of notes. 

Lim Yan is no ordinary pianist, and as de facto leader of Take 5, took charge from start to end. His sombre opening solo was replied by his string partners violinists Foo Say Ming and Lim Shue Churn, violist Chan Yoong Han and cellist Chan Wei Shing in rapt attention. Their keen sense of chemistry, borne of years of playing together, soon told as the work gained in tempo and volume.

One reason why this work is hardly ever heard is its sheer density of Romantic excesses. Too many notes was what Lim had to contend with in all its four movements, which included florid chords, scintillating runs and cascading octaves, all well supported by the strings. There were some folksy moments in the scherzo-like Intermezzo, and even an Oriental-sounding second subject in the Finale, but the overall idiom was strongly Germanic, including throwing in a fugue for good measure.

Lim in his programme notes revealed that the great Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni was involved in the premieres of both piano quintets. That would certainly explain the preponderance of the piano, but that was less obvious in Sibelius' Piano Quintet in G minor (1890). An early work, it predated his landmark symphonies and tone poems but contained glimpses of future greatness, especially in his development of motifs and themes.

Sobriety dominated the first of five movements, while two lighter salon-like movements sandwiched an Andante which was the true heart of the sprawling 40-minute work. Here there was a lovely viola melody, accompanied by pizzicatos from violin and cello and harp-like runs from the piano. Later in Scherzo, the flow came to a shuddering halt when a tuning peg on Chan Yoong Han's viola came loose. Being true professionals, the movement was re-started and completed beautifully without further incident or fuss.

The vivacious finale brought out folk-like elements that were previously sublimated, and like the Sinding had all five musicians stretching themselves for a triumphant and breathless close. So what further piano quintets can the public expect from Take 5? From this humble (and humbled) listener, the quintets by Medtner, Zarebski, Bacewicz and Schnittke all sound like fascinating future prospects. Are you all game?


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