Monday, 7 March 2016


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Friday (4 March 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 March 2016 with the title "Mesmerising mentors". 

If one wishes to know how conservatory students get to be so good in what they do, just attend a recital by their teachers and mentors. Without exception, faculty concerts at the Conservatory draw big audiences, especially when star quality is on display. Chinese-Australian cellist Qin Li-Wei, head of cello studies, is the closest thing this nation has to the likes of Yo-Yo Ma living and playing on campus.

His recital with pianist Bernard Lanskey, Conservatory Director, was the kind that would not look out of place in the world's eminent concert venues. The first half comprised two 20th century cello sonatas, both in the key of D minor. Debussy's Sonata was a late work composed as part of a chamber cycle to consciously espouse French musical styles and values, as opposed to time-honoured Germanic ones.

In its three movements, the idiom was free and fantasy-like, one which gave Qin's voice on his 1780 Guadagnini cello the air of wonderment and mystique. His tone was lovingly burnished, flexible in nuances and ever sensitive to the music's constantly shifting dynamics. While the outer movements had brief lyrical moments, the central Serenade played with pizzicatos and comedic simulations of drums and percussion.

Lanskey was a most accomodating partner, always attuned to the action, varying his responses exactingly to the note. His task was made more onerous in Shostakovich's Sonata, which had the surface appearance of a traditional sonata but one loaded with thorns and barbs. The lyrical opening was but a ploy, soon revealing a heart of darkness and turmoil within.

The searing 2nd movement revolved like a spinning-wheel of death, leading to a long-breathed melody of desolation in the ensuing Largo. Both cellist and pianist made the most of its pathos and then gamely launched into a Rondo of schizophrenic mood swings, an impish and mock-playful dance alternating with violent interjections.

The second half began with Schubert's famous “Arpeggione” Sonata (so named after an obsolete bowed guitar-like instrument), three movements of his sunniest music, close to the Austrian composer's intimate world of lieder. Quite appropriately, the Conservatory's Bosendorfer grand was wheeled in to replace the Steinway. The result was a mellower tone, with less of a metallic sheen.       

Qin really knows the meaning of cantabile, and rarely has the work's unimpeded flow of melody been made to sound so natural, and never to the point of being cloying. To close with congenial Schubert would have been perfection by itself, but fireworks were thrown in for good measure with Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs).

Unabashedly appropriated from the violinist's repertoire, he made the showpiece his own, with breath-taking cadenzas and a healthy helping of vibrato. The much-welcomed encore to an encore was Elgar's Salut D'Amour, with its honeyed sweetness milked to the very last drop. 

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