Monday, 27 March 2017

PETRUSHKA. BRAHMS PIANO CONCERTO NO.1 / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (24 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 27 March 2017 with the title "Dances blossom under conductor's handling".

This listener was present at Victoria Concert Hall when Finnish conductor Okko Kamu first conducted the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in early 1985. In Sibelius' Fifth Symphony, the orchestra was galvanised in a manner that it never seemed to possess, sounding with a freshness, vitality and grit that remains indelibly etched in the mind to this day. Ten years later, he led the first of 88 programmes as the orchestra's only Principal Guest Conductor.

In his final concert in that official capacity, Kamu appeared almost embarrassed as SSO Chairman Goh Yew Lin sang his praises in a witty preamble. He smiled, mostly looking at the floor and did not say a word. His laconic demeanour then gave way to what he did best, marshalling the players from the rostrum.

The evening opened with Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka, a work that underlined the composer's Russianness. The ensemble was tautly held together in the busyness of the Shrovetide Fair, sounding plangent but not congested as the puppet show began. The eponymous puppet, a tragic figure represented by Stravinsky's “Petrushka chord” of interlocking triads and tritones, was very well characterised.

The orchestra as narrator worked tirelessly as the drama unfolded, with Shane Thio's demanding piano playing a major role, and important solos by Jon Paul Dante (trumpet, as Petrushka's love interest the ballerina), Jin Ta (flute) and Igor Yuzefovich (violin).

More importantly, this musical tableaux of dances was allowed to breathe and blossom under Kamu's direction, all through to its muted and ghostly end. As Dante's trumpet uttered Petrushka's last vengeful breath over faint echoes of the fair, one could hear a pin drop. The applause was loud and prolonged, but that was not the end.

Brahms' First Piano Concerto occupied the second part, with German pianist Martin Helmchen substituting for the indisposed Russian Nikolai Lugansky. This was no huge loss as Helmchen gave a performance that was as confident as it was magisterial. The stormy opening orchestral tutti was balanced by the piano's composed entry, which served as a calming influence. When it came to the development section, big octaves and chords showed he could barnstorm with the best of them.

The slow movement was a revelation, its hymn-like phrases on piano handled with utmost reverence and love. The orchestra's discreet contribution playing was one of an acute listener and partner, the beatific hush that permeated the Adagio was down to Kamu's totally sympathetic handling of the collaborating forces.

While the final Rondo was an exciting romp, it was Helmchen's nuanced playing that had most to admire. Lighter touches and intricate staccato playing were to offset the tempest-tossed pages as the concerto drew to its tumultuous close. This was more a reading of nobility than a tragedy-laden one. True to form, the self-effacing conductor Kamu quietly retired to allow the young man to bask in two encores (Bach-Busoni and Schubert) and the well-deserved limelight.  

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