Tuesday, 15 March 2016

PARTY OF FIVE / Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Faculty Concert / Review

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Sunday (13 March 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 March 2016 with the title "A close-knit quintet impresses".

After the superlative showing by cellist Qin Li-Wei and pianist Bernard Lanskey in their recital just a week ago, this concert by five other conservatory professors and heads of department was a follow-up of sorts. It was in fact a celebration of the familiar adage, that a family that plays together stays together.

The combo of piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass is an unusual one, based loosely on what talents of a group of musical friends can throw up, rather than the conventional piano and string quartet configuration. The archetypal work was Franz Schubert's Piano Quintet in A, popularly known as the Trout Quintet, but a far more recent addition was Englishman Ralph Vaughan Williams' Piano Quintet in C minor, which opened the evening.    

First performed in 1905, it was withdrawn by the composer but permission was given by his estate for a revival in 1999. The influence of Brahms informs the richly-textured first movement, with Albert Tiu obliged to play big piano chords, while melodies for Zhang Manchin's viola and Ng Pei-Sian's cello ensured the music be dabbed with darker hues.

If one sought RVW's trademark folksong pastoralism, the wait would be a long one. His choral-arrangement skills could however be found in the piano solo for the slow movement, which gave way to fluid lyricism in the strings led by Zuo Jun's violin, supported by Guennadi's Mouzyka's double-bass.

After a reverie-like wallow with sedate tempos, the variations on a folksong-like theme in the finale perked things up before concluding in a quiet calm. A fascinating if not great or representative work, the five players made it sound better than it actually is.        

Schubert's Trout Quintet was first heard at intimate Viennese house soirees (or Schubertiades), but only published after his death. Now his most popular chamber work, one wonders what he would have thought of it being performed in front of large concert-hall audiences.

Regardless of who is listening, the closely-knit work of five musicians remains key. Despite the piano having the biggest part, it was difficult to see who was the obvious leader here. Nonetheless the team worked well together, with the sonata-form 1st movement setting the tone. This was an energised and brisk performance, even if the 2nd movement displayed stretches of gemutlichkeit, or the state of being carefree.

The leading chords of the Scherzo were punched out with purpose, as homespun rusticity took precedence over politeness. And if there were concessions to virtuoso playing, that would be in the 4th movement's Theme and Variations, based on Schubert's lied Die Forelle (The Trout, hence the nickname). Tiu was kept ever busy, while his string partners tooks turns to sing out its jaunty and catchy melody.

There was good reason to perform Schubert last, simply because the feel-good factor encompassed the entire work. Even if the party of five had performed close to 75 minutes of music, there was no sense of fatigue as the Allegro giusto finale romped to a joyous conclusion. 

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