Saturday, 5 December 2015


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (3 December 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 December 2015 with the title "Ashkenazy leads the SSO through a rousing Rachmaninov evening."

An earlier review from this listener posited that Rachmaninov's name helped sell concert tickets. Now add Vladimir Ashkenazy's to that, a full-house becomes a certainty. In the celebrated Russian-born pianist-conductor's third concert leading the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, even the gallery behind the orchestra was filled to over-flowing.

The concert opened with Vocalise Op.34 No.14, Rachmaninov's only wordless song, in his own orchestration. An early woodwind miscue almost spoiled things but it was the seamless strings that saved it. Melismata from the violins added a glossy sheen, which lightened up the bittersweet mood of the short 6-minute piece.

Usually performed as an encore, it seemed the perfect prelude to the Third Piano Concerto which featured prize-winning Russian pianist Alexei Volodin as soloist. Again another woodwind miscue sullied the exposition, a chant-like melody reminiscent of Russian orthodoxy, but thankfully that was to be the last mishap. The rock steady Volodin, directed by the musician who has recorded the concerto the most times (five at last count), was not to be perturbed.

If he seemed cool in the 1st movement, it was a wise gambit which allowed his solo part to be better integrated within the orchestra's textures. He let off the brakes in the development section and simply took off, culminating in a cadenza of pure elemental energy. In the unusual accompanied section of that cadenza, he backed down and became the perfect partner to Jin Ta's flute, Rachel Walker's oboe, Ma Yue's clarinet and Jamie Hersch's French horn. 

The orchestral introduction of the slow movement was perfectly weighted, and then the mood turned red hot. This was tempered by a whimsical waltz section where Volodin's scintillating fingerwork floated over the orchestra's busyness. The finale was a white-hot bare-knuckled ride, filled with exciting edge-of-the-seat moments, yet there was even time to breathe in the central variations which revealed a different facet to his virtuosity. A standing ovation yielded two Slavic encores, a Chopin mazurka and Prokofiev's brilliant Scherzo (Op.12 No.10)

The second half belonged to the Symphonic Dances, Rachmaninov's last work, and sometimes regarded as his fifth symphony (after Nos.1-3 and The Bells). Ashkenazy's vision was one of terminal nostalgia, reflecting the composer's yearning for his homeland and roots which would never be fulfilled.

The Non Allegro direction on the score was not taken literally, instead with a forceful urgency that dissipated with Tang Xiao Ping's soulful saxophone solo. That and the restatement of a theme from his First Symphony (then thought to be forever lost) took on a greater significance.

The second movement waltzed with ghostly intent like some ballroom scene from War And Peace, and the finale's raucous juxtaposition of the Dies Irae chant with a hymn from his choral Vespers became a paean of sorts. As with many Rachmaninov scores, ambivalence and ambiguity are recurrent traits. So was this a celebratory end or a defiant one?

Judging from the joyous rather than dogged approach from all forces, and Ashkenazy holding high his score to greet the audience's hearty reception, his view clearly pointed to the former. 

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