Tuesday, 29 March 2016

A FRENCH CONNECTION / Take 5 Piano Quintet / Review

Take 5 Piano Quintet
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (27 March 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 March 2016 with the title "Piano quintet has fun with diabolical diversion".

There was more than one French connection in this latest concert by Singapore's foremost piano quintet, Take 5. Firstly, all three French composers featured were much better-known as organists than pianists. Secondly, Camille Saint-Saëns was a teacher of Charles-Marie Widor, who in turn taught Olivier Messiaen. Thirdly, all the three works performed were receiving local premieres.

Saint-Saëns' Piano Quintet in A minor (1855), a conscientious work of a youngster, is virtually unknown for good reason: it is an awfully boring piece. More academic exercise than something truly inspired, its four movements seemed to tick off the boxes of technical accomplishments which all composition students strive for.

Piano chords and filigree from Lim Yan dominated the 1st movement, while a prayer-like slow movement presented Chan Yoong Han's viola and Chan Wei Shing's cello with some melodic interest. The Presto 3rd movement gave the pianist frantic runs up and down the keyboard while the finale had the obligatory fugue, as inevitable as some tiresome graduation speech.

The quintet completed by violinists Foo Say Ming and Lim Shue Churn, were as expected, good servants to this pleasant and innocuous music, making the best case as they possibly could. The first half concluded with a little sting in its tale: Messiaen's unpretentiously titled Piece for Piano & String Quartet (1991).

Its pungent 4 minutes said far more than what Saint-Saëns accomplished in an entire half-hour. Four incisively-driven notes on strings were ear-catching, ushering in the purposeful dissonance of Lim's piano mimicry of birdsong, in this case the garden warbler (fauvette des jardins). Even before the ears could come to grips with its rarefied idiom, the same four notes emphatically ended the piece.

For those imagining Widor's Second Piano Quintet in D major (1894) to be much like his organ music, notably that Toccata of countless wedding services, they would be pleasantly surprised. His idiom is decidedly darker here, more aligned to the Cesar Franck and Richard Wagner axis.

The chromatic language in the opening movement occasionally lapsed into moments of lyricism and levity which were refreshing. There was even a short final flourish at the movement's end for violinist Foo to relive his re:mix ringmaster act as leading showman. Bare piano octaves heralded the 2nd movement's passacaglia, which for all its austerity led to a heartwarming climax of rare beauty.

Short and exciting, the scherzo-like 3rd movement swept past like something out of The Flying Dutchman, filled with searing dissonances and malevolent intent. One suspects the players had the most fun with this diabolical diversion, somewhat reluctantly reverting to a more casual and lighter stance for the finale.

Themes from the 1st movement were rehashed, but this time a salon-like charm took precedence, with some rhapsodic musing before a grandstanding close. Having clearly appreciated the experience, the audience applauded long after the quintet had taken its last bows, packed up and gone home.

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