Monday, 8 May 2017

DEBUSSY AND DVORAK / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (5 May 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 May 2017 with the title "Divine Debussy & Dvorak".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra is presently recording the major orchestral works of Claude Debussy. La Mer, Images, the ballets Jeux and The Toy Box, and several concertante works are already “in the can”. This evening's concert conducted by Music Director Shui Lan offered some of the Frenchman's youthful and rarely performed works.

Marche Ecossaise (Scottish March, 1891) received its Singapore premiere this evening. Better known in its version for piano four hands, its sumptuous orchestration highlighted the orchestra's solo woodwinds to good effect. Rachel Walker (oboe), Elaine Yeo (cor anglais) and Jin Ta (flute) distinguished themselves in this slight but pleasant rhapsody on a Scottish modal theme.

Printemps (1887) was considered Debussy's first “impressionist” work, and its 1913 orchestration by Henri Busser nevertheless adopted the master's imprimatur. Another rustic modal theme was developed through its two movements, from a hushed and hazy beginning, blossoming like a nascent spring into a dance and through to its rousing close. The orchestra's insightful performance should win it many new friends.

Better known and staple of the harp repertoire is Danse sacrée et danse profane (Sacred Dance and Profane Dance), which saw SSO Principal harpist Gulnara Mashurova backed by only strings. One of Debussy most ethereal works, the harp's celestial strains stood out above the sensitive accompaniment, first sounding chaste and formal before breaking out to a freer but no less elegant waltz rhythm. Mashurova's nocturne-like solo encore was just as sublime.

The evening's main draw was Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor with China-born cellist Wang Jian as soloist. Now in his mid-forties, Wang first found fame as the irresistible 10-year-old boy who performed in the end-credits of Isaac Stern's iconic docu-movie From Mao To Mozart. It was also with the Dvorak that he made his SSO debut in 1993.

Enduring through the intervening decades was his deeply felt and instinctual response to what is arguably the greatest cello concerto ever composed. This and his gorgeously-hewn tone, fully voiced, plain-speaking yet so filled with vitality, made for another memorable performance.

What has been shed was that exuberance of youth. In its place was an unspoken yet palpable sadness, possibly borne of world-weariness that permeated its three movements. This is work of maturity which received its due, through the 1st movement's upheavals, the slow movement's plaintive song and the finale's resolute denouement.

The orchestral partnership was not as sharp as in the SSO's live recording with Qin Li-Wei on Decca Records, and there were occasional intonation issues with the French horns. Nevertheless it was still a gripping reading, culminating in the glorious shared passage with Wang and concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich's violin towards the end.

For encores, Wang starred in Dvorak's Song To The Moon (from the opera Rusalka) accompanied by full orchestra, before closing with a Chinese melody on his own. The latter's title Liang Xiao (Beautiful Evening) was a perfect summation of the two-and-a-half hours that had so eventfully passed.     

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