Monday, 4 April 2016

SSO CONCERT: EROICA / Review



EROICA
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (1 April 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 4 April 2016 with the title "Strings shine in musical picture postcard".

Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture might just be the best example of a musical picture postcard. It records his impressions of Fingal's Cave, a geographical phenomenon of basalt pillars amid crashing waves off Scotland's remote Staffa island. That the Singapore Symphony Orchestra led by its Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu took a leisurely view to its opening came as a surprise.

Theirs was a vista of a calm sea with more than a hint of the sun, given its gently lapping rhythm. The strings shone with the geniality of a warm English summer, and it seemed a long while coming before a windswept spray arrived, and it did so with a welcome surge in pulse and volume.


If Mendelssohn was a portrait of politeness, Sergei Prokofiev struck like a serpent baring fangs in his iconoclastic Second Piano Concerto in G minor. This has become the signature piece of young piano virtuosos willing to hyperflex their muscles and raise the roof. Even among overwrought performances which are a norm, Hong Kong-born Chiyan Wong's account stood out for being vastly different and often revisionist.


How he stressed and stretched the opening movement's slow tempos, peppering it with ear-catching accents at unexpected places and dragging out the massive cadenza to almost eternity was certain to perk one up. His quickfire reflexes in the machine-gun-like Scherzo - concluded within all of two minutes - was almost a given. The rambunctious Intermezzo and tempestuous Finale gave him much opportunity to redefine the meaning of the word “grotesque”.


One suspects the enfant terrible in Prokofiev would not have minded at all. With excellent accounts on disc by youngsters Yuja Wang, Kirill Gerstein and Beatrice Rana available for reference, Wong is very much his own man with many things valid to say. His encore, Liszt's late and bleak Nuages Gris (Grey Clouds) – also in G minor – and the very antithesis of the concerto, was also proof of unique thought processes at work. 

More conventional was conductor Kamu's expansive leadership in Beethoven's Third Symphony, popularly known as the Eroica Symphony, yet it was anything but run of the mill. Two vehemently registered E major chords rang out his intent, and the life and death struggle of the 1st movement unfolded with a magisterial directness.


The Funeral March slow movement meandered within its longeurs, coming across as stately and not doom-laden. Principal oboist Rachel Walker's fine solos lit up this sombre preocession, and patience was rewarded with a very personal view of tragedy, unfurling itself at the impassioned climax.

The rollicking Scherzo 3rd movement skipped with a litheness that was disarming, but the best part was the French horn trio of Han Chang Chou, Marc-Antoine Robillard and Alan Kartik whose whooping triads leapt up unabashedly to steal the show. The finale's variations on a quirky theme from The Creatures of Prometheus provided that welcome bit of rowdy humour. Beethoven was all blood and guts, but it was his human side that was most heartwarming, as this performance amply demonstrated.


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