Monday, 9 October 2017

STEVEN ISSERLIS. ELGAR CELLO CONCERTO / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (5 October 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 October 2017 with the title "Breathtaking performance".

It seemed like a short while ago when eminent British cellist Steven Isserlis last performed Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Wrong, unless one considers fourteen years a mere blip in time. That was in 2003, in Esplanade's first year, when Isserlis made his Singapore debut and SSO was still getting used to the Concert Hall's reverberant acoustics.

Both soloist and orchestra have matured, and the result was a totally satisfying performance that wrung out the pathos of this late work, composed shortly after the First World War. There was to be no show-boating, and Isserlis' opening solo – emphatic groan followed by long heaving sigh – was breathtaking for its depth of despair rather than actual brilliance.

This was its tenor from tumultuous opening to devastating close. Themes and climaxes were built up trenchantly, and the virtuosity involved became secondary to the music's essence. The mercurial scherzo whizzed by, providing scant respite, while the famous Adagio ached to its seams. If Nimrod (from Enigma Variations) represented nobility, this movement was surely the epitome of grief, greatly belying its relatively short-windedness (just 60 bars long).

The finale was to be a romp, but the juggernaut was stopped short with a reprise of the concerto's opening, a poignant reminder of everything that was lost. A standing ovation greeted its end, and Isserlis offered two solo encores. The first was Catalan cello legend Pablo Casals' soulful Song Of The Birds, surely his personal salute to people who yearn to be free.

Directing this concert was Singaporean Darrell Ang, who eschewed traditional and weighty conductor's scores for the compact iPad. The acuteness of vision required to read from this gizmo was also translated into excellent performances of two orchestral rarities.

Czech composer Josef Suk's Scherzo Fantastique, which opened the concert, immediately thrusted woodwinds into the spotlight. They did not disappoint, and neither did the mellow cellos which were gifted a lilting waltz to dance to. The skilful alternating between busy, fidgety flickering figures and warm sumptuous melody, accompanied by tingling triangle and tambourine, was a highlight, even if one thought this repetitious and several minutes overlong.

Also heard for a first time was Alexander Glazunov's Fifth Symphony in B flat major. The venerated Conservatory composition professor was an arch-conservative, and this symphony was predictably polished, highly tuneful (although one will be severely challenged to remember its melodies the next day), technically demanding for players, but ultimately inoffensive for listeners.

The orchestra nevertheless put up an impressive show, the stern opening growl looking forward to Scriabin while the thematic elements and development looked backward to Tchaikovsky. Woodwinds stole the show in its Scherzo and brass chorales reigned in the slow movement. The finale, derived from folk music, drove itself into a frenzied dance and conclusion. Cue more cheers, but do not expect this to be heard again for several decades, if ever. 

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