Tuesday, 12 January 2016

STRAVINSKY IN FRANCE / N.E.O.Ensemble / Review

N.E.O. Ensemble
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (10 January 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 12 January 2016 with the title "Shining Stravinsky".

The N.E.O. (New Epoch Orchestral) Ensemble is the newest local orchestra to unveil its talents in a land well populated by musical groups. Formed by some of the nation's finest young professional musicians and conducted by Seow Yibin, it debuted with an all-Stravinsky programme. This concert covered the Russian composer's neoclassical phase, which spanned the 1920s and 30s when he lived in France.

Four works were performed, all using chamber-sized forces, a conscious paring down from his large and opulent ballet scores like The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Such a diminution was obvious in the Octet for Winds (1923), for flute, clarinet, two of each of bassoons, trombones and trumpets.

The clear delineation of its parts was well handled by the players, each one a virtuoso in his or her own right, and the overall balance was generally excellent. The 2nd movement's Theme and Variations saw an admirable ability to cope with the music's twists and turns matched with pin-point playing.

Conductor Seow spoke briefly about the composer, but his impromptu spiel was poorly prepared. Referencing musicologist Richard Taruskin, “Wagner symphonies” (he did not write any significant ones) and “machine-like French music” (really?), it all came across as incoherent. Thankfully his conducting was much better defined, as were Natalie Ng's well-researched programme notes. 

Pianist Lim Yan was soloist in a rare performance of the Concerto for Piano & Winds (1923-24), a neo-Baroque creation in three movements that demanded utmost precision and concentration. A veteran at handling the thorniest of scores, Lim's mastery of its irregular rhythms and syncopations made it an enthralling outing.

The piano's metallic clangour ensured he was not submerged by a larger group of woodwinds and brass, and there were spots for subtlety and sensitivity, notably in the slow movement's aria-like lyricism. The busily raucous finale trundled on industriously before its abrupt and emphatic close which caught the audience almost by surprise.

By the time the Symphonies for Wind Instruments (1920) concluded, the ensemble had warmed up and the playing was even more assured. The tandem of flautist Cheryl Lim and clarinettist Desmond Chow had significant parts, and they were nigh inseparable. The title made use of the Greek meaning of “symphony”, which was to “sound together” rather than the compositional form, and that was exactly what the the group delivered.

The final work, Dumbarton Oaks Concerto (1937), a deliberate homage by Stravinsky to Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, saw strings outnumber the winds. Now there were three violins, three violas, two cellists and two basses alongside flute, clarinet, bassoon and two horns. Textures were therefore lighter, and the ensemble adjusted its sound accordingly.

The outer movements were thick with counterpoint, bookending a slow movement that was a graceful gavotte-like dance with typically Stravinskian harmonic quirks. As with the preceding pieces, the reading shone with its highly responsive playing and vivacity. Live performances like these bring out the spirit of the music and the composer far better than the umpteenth canned recording for sale.   


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