Tuesday, 21 July 2015

FRANCK'S PIANO QUINTET / VCH Chamber Series / Review

VCH Chamber Series
Sunday (19 July 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 July 2015 with the title "An edgy and lyrical afternoon of chamber music".

There are so many chamber concerts by talented young musicians these days that it is easy to forget that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's own chamber series featuring its players still provides excellent playing and value for one's time. This latest concert underlines the importance of this series, which will in time get progressively ambitious.

The first half featured Russian fare, opening with a piano trio arrangement of Rachmaninov's Vocalise (Op.34 No.14). Violinist Chen Da Wei and cellist Yu Jing got the share of its juicy melodies while pianist Yao Xiao Yun's role was that of able accompanist. Unfortunately, some of the harmonies employed in this score were unidiomatic (one doubts whether the composer would have sanctioned it) and the result was more sickly sentimental than melancholic.

No such doubts existed for Shostakovich's Piano Trio No.1, a student work from his teenaged years. In its single movement, one already discerns the sparks of genius that would light up his precocious First Symphony. His brand of bittersweet was unlike Rachmaninov's, and one tinged with irony and parody, which was trenchantly brought out by the three players. 

Emerging from occasional jarring dissonances, Yu's cello sang with much lyrical beauty but the throw-back to Romanticism was brief, soon to be overshadowed by the dark gloom that would mostly occupy Shostakovich's output. The trio responded well to abrupt swings in mood and dynamics, more than making up for the music's somewhat ambiguous ending.

On the same edgy frequency was Cesar Franck's Piano Quintet in F minor, one of the great repertoire works for this medium. One will scarcely find a more cohesive string quartet group than the one led by violinist Lynnette Seah, which included violinist Cindy Lee, violist Zhang Manchin and cellist Ng Pei-Sian. Their opening register was gripping, a sinister growl that would define the work's starkly sombre tone.

Pianist Liu Jia's entry was more leisurely, even mellow, but soon she would be dragged into the music's mesmerising intensity. She played with piano lid half down, which allowed better integration with the strings, rather than stand out as a soloist. This unity brilliantly bore out the music's unfolding upheavals and turmoil without letting up for a moment.

There were spots of transcending beauty in the slow movement, where Seah's violin sang out as if it were waxing lyrical in Franck's popular Violin Sonata. The calm was broken with the final movement's manic march to the edge of sanity, with a terrifying sense of momentum. The five musicians were fully in control while the music seemed to hurtle dangerously towards parts unknown.

Little wonder that its original dedicatee, the genteel Camille Saint-SaĆ«ns was so incensed that he stormed out after its premiere. On the count of this afternoon's commanding performance, the audience would stride out of Victoria Concert Hall with nothing less than total satisfaction and admiration.      

Acknowledging the applause are Ng Pei-Sian,
Lynnette Seah, Liu Jia, Cindy Lee and Zhang Manchin.
SSO Music Director Shui Lan offers his
congratulations to the performers.

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