Monday, 20 November 2017

SONG OF DESTINY. BRAHMS SYMPHONIES / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (17 November 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 November 2017 with the title "A night when darkness passed into light".

This was the programme that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Music Director Shui Lan was to play in its first concert in Kuala Lumpur's Dewan Filharmonik Petronas after a hiatus of 17 years. It appropriately began with the world premiere of Meditation, a very short work by the prodigious 19-year-old pianist-composer Tengku Irfan, once hailed in these pages as the Malaysian Mozart.

Originally a piano piece, its orchestration relived the lush atonality of Second Viennese School composer Alban Berg. Before any discernible development could even take place, it ended as quietly as it began. That served as a teaser for two choral works by Johannes Brahms, Gesang der Parzen (Song Of The Fates) and Schicksalslied (Song Of Destiny), performed by a combined choir comprising the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Singapore Symphony Youth Choir and Choir of the Transylvanian State Philharmonic, Cluj-Napoca.

Those familiar with A German Requiem will readily recognise Brahms' musical idiom, but the words here do not offer succour, instead cynicism and bitterness in the writings of Goethe and Holderlin respectively. Heavenly hosts conspire against mortals, and the gods are indifferent to earthly matters. Its anti-theist message was as clear as the diction and enunciation of the 110-strong mass of voices.

While Gesang der Parzen coloured its eternal struggle and despair in tragic and sombre tones, Schicksalslied did offer a mere measure of solace in its C major close. These contrasts were keenly brought out by the choir, now under the wing of new choral director Eudenice Palaruan, who succeeded Lim Yau's illustrious over 30-year-long tenure earlier this year. The accompanying orchestra played with discreetness and transparency throughout.

After the spare and grim choral works of the first half, Brahms' Second Symphony played after the interval shone like many rays of sunshine. This was the concluding chapter of the orchestra's Brahms symphony cycle under Shui, and in many ways its most optimistic.

Unlike his view of Beethoven symphonies which tended to be on the brisk side, Shui adopted more expansive tempos for this Brahms symphony. One might even use the description of leisurely, but it never felt draggy or bogged down unlike the portentous reading by veteran Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky of several years ago.

Lilting strings were a pleasure in the 1st movement's second theme, the one that recalled Brahms' universally sung Wiegenlied (Cradle Song). Textures were also kept on the light side, and even the serious slow movement could afford a smile in its longeurs. Principal French horn Han Chang Chou's solos were immaculately phrased, and woodwinds stood out in the chirpy narrative of the third movement.

If one longed for a more pressing approach, that eventually came in the finale, which was taken in one slick lick.  If pure joy could be expressed, it could not have been better captured, as the concert  passed from darkness to light. 

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