Sunday, 24 July 2016


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Saturday (23 July 2016)

The last time veteran Russian pianist Dmitri Alexeev played the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra several years ago, I thought he sounded tired, and tired or even bored of the oft-performed warhorse. This time around, I am happy to report that some sort of rejuvenation had taken place.  

Not only did he sound more energised, there seemed to be more of an effort to make the piano sound out above the orchestral throng. The solo opening chords were taken at a true Moderato, as indicated by the composer and as the orchestra launched into the 1st movement's big melody, Alexeev made sure that every note of his – even if it was accompaniment to one of Rachmaninov's most melancholic tunes – was clearly heard. We know he can barnstorm like the best of young pianists, but it is his discretion and restraint in less frenzied parts -  a true test of nobility -  that stood out. The horn solo after the chordal climax from Jamie Hersch was perfectly controlled, and that added to the classiness of the performance.

In the slow movement, Evgueni Brokmiller's flute and Li Xin's clarinet were excellent, setting the mood for the piano's wallow that built up to an ecstatic high culminating with Alexeev's cadenza that stretched the full length of the keyboard. The resultant big string tune at the end, accompanied by the piano's right hand chords and left hand arpeggios capped the movement's love music. If this entire episode is not about the act of love-making set to music, then I do not know anything about music.

The finale had a bit of the rough and ready, but that did not diminish the excitement of more big tunes and more big climaxes which both pianist and orchestra did well to sustain to its spectacular end. Alexeev's little encore was a welcome break from the virtuosic fare, a Chopinesque mazurka in F minor.

The rest of the concert comprised music by Berlioz on this year's Shakespeare theme. Conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier, the SSO opened with the Overture to Beatrice et Benedict, showcasing a very refined string sound that revelled in the high registers, the sort one does not get to hear too often. This delicacy of playing continued into the second half's orchestral excerpts from the symphonie lyrique Romeo et Juliette.  The supposedly impossible-to-play (in Berlioz's time) Queen Mab Scherzo was made to sound easy by the orchestra, with excellent winds gliding over the most luscious string textures thought possible.

The Love Scene, with shades of dissonances that look forward to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, was also beautifully judged, building to yearning climaxes (but not of Rachmaninov's orgasmic variety) with little exertion or effort. Tortelier conducted the entire second half from memory, and the Festival Music of the Capulets, now with the brass joining in full voice, closed the concert on a high. This evening's fare showed that the orchestra was totally capable of playing with restraint, tonal variety and colour, and that is something to be proud of.  

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