Monday, 21 May 2018

THE GLORY OF THE BAROQUE / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (18 May 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 May 2018 with the title "Spirited display of Baroque music".

Local audiences may be forgiven for thinking that baroque music consisted little more than Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Handel's Messiah and Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Given recent programming of Singapore Symphony Orchestra's chamber concerts at Victoria Concert Hall, that notion should soon cease. British violinist and conductor Peter Hanson, veteran of the early music movement, has been helping to spearhead this change.

The first of two baroque concerts opened with Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli's Canzon XVI, highlighting the antiphonal qualities in cathedrals where his works were performed. The ensemble was split into three distinct string groups, widely spaced apart, and the effect was no less than gorgeously sonorous. 

Heinrich Ignaz Biber's Battaglia was an early form of programme music, depicting scenes of vivid battle which looked forward to potboilers like Beethoven's Wellington's Victory and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Nine string players were all that was needed to churn up a cacophony of marches, drums and fifes, musket and cannon shots by means of violent pizzicatos, the likes of which 20th century modernist Bartok would have been proud of.  

Cast in G minor were Alessandro Stradella's Overture to La Forza Delle Stelle and Henry Purcell's well-known Chacony. The former began with a serious introduction followed a fugue, while the latter was an archetypal set of short variations on a ground bass. These compositional forms commonly heard in the 17th century were performed with loving care and detail. 

Handel's ubiquitous oratorio Messiah was represented by two arias from young soprano Felicia Teo. She initially had some difficulty in negotiating the dizzying runs and intonation in Rejoice Greatly, but soon settled in He Shall Feed His Flock which better revealed her mellifluous tone. Now warmed up properly, she let loose on Handel's Tornami A Vagheggiar (Return To Me To Languish) from Alcina, a display of vocal athleticism and agility that was very impressive.

The evening closed with two works that highlighted solo instruments supported by a larger group of players. Vivaldi Concerto for Two Violins in A minor (Op.3 No.8) from L'Estro Armonico placed soloists Ye Lin and Xu Jue Yi in the forefront, where their virtuosic parts were able to shine through like beacons over the accompaniment in three movements. Vivaldi was one of music's early violin virtuosos and his music reflected that kind of flair.  

A little more subtle was Handel's Concerto Grosso in G major, Op.6 No.1 where violinists Hanson and Michael Loh, and cellist Guo Hao formed the central concertino group. While less obviously virtuosic, their voices nonetheless stood out from the backing ripieno group. Its five movements were built around a central Adagio where time stood still albeit for a short while. Then, a busy fugue and lively gigue (literally a jig) in triple time closed the concert on a spirited high.

The glory and diversity of the baroque could not have been better served. 

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