Monday, 7 May 2018

KAVAKOS PLAYS SHOSTAKOVICH / Singapore Symphony Orchestra Gala / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (5 May 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times with the title "SSO again displays mastery in Russian music".

The last gala concert in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's 2017-18 season was an all-Russian programme conducted by Shui Lan. The orchestra has had a long love affair with Russian music since its early years under Choo Hoey, and this concert was another demonstration of its mastery in this repertoire.

The atmospheric Prelude to Mussorgsky's unfinished opera Khovanshchina, also called Dawn On The Moscow River, provided an excellent start. Over the hushed tones of violas, Evgueni Brokmiller's flute and Li Xin's clarinet sung a folkloric melody, immediately conjuring an air of melancholy that typified the Russian spirit. A quartet of French horns relived the peal of distant church bells, raising the spectre of Mussorgsky's greatest opera Boris Godunov, but a still calm returned as this mini-epic drew to a quiet close.

While Mussorgsky was Russia's musical conscience in the 19th century, and his modern-day counterpart was Shostakovich, whose First Violin Concerto in A minor has become one of the most performed of 20th century violin concertos. Its first performance had to be suppressed until after Stalin's death. It was thought that music posed dangerous ideas, including promoting dissonance, dissent and defeatism, all taboo in the totalitarian Soviet Union.

These were laid bare in Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos' blistering performance. From the darkest of orchestral openings, Kavakos' crystalline tone shone like shafts of clear moonlight through murky clouds in the 1st movement's Nocturne. Here the night was synonymous with bleakness and unease, in particular the fear and dread of that knock on the door after midnight.

Shostakovich lived a life of chronic gloom, and even if his music sometimes appeared cheerful, it was invariably dripping with vitriol. Kavakos' searing and lancinating solo led the way in the Scherzo, which highlighted the bassoon for comic relief and also quoted the composer's own initials DSCH (D-E flat-C-B natural) as a personal stamp.

The 3rd movement's moving Passacaglia and the final Klezmer-charged Burlesque was not just about Kavakos' astounding and free-wheeling virtuosity, but also how well Shui and his orchestra responded to its enormous challenges in partnership. Shouts of bravo were silenced by Kavakos' antithetical encore, a lightly ornamented reading of the Sarabande from J.S.Bach's Partita No.2.

Tchaikovsky's First Symphony in G minor, or “Winter Daydreams”, closed the evening on yet another high. Although one of his less popular symphonies, it is still filled with his trademarks – sumptuous melodies, bracing climaxes and an underlying neurosis. All of these surfaced in the 1st movement, which was a constant battle between tension and relaxation.

An aural lusciousness shone through in the slow movement, with muted strings matched by exquisite solos from oboe, flute and bassoon. Bringing to mind some of Tchaikovsky's best ballet music, this and the 3rd movement's Scherzo also featured the best playing. The finale's success was all about building up to a terrific climax, and this was delivered with absolute panache.

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