Wednesday, 3 March 2021

HAPPY CHINESE NEW YEAR CONCERT 2021 / Ding Yi Music Company / Review


Ding Yi Music Company

China Cultural Centre

Saturday (27 February 2021)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 3 March 2021


There has been no live classical music during this Lunar New Year period, but trust Ding Yi Music Company to mount four sold-out concerts in the space of two evenings. The chamber outfit’s well-received programmes of festive fare at the China Cultural Centre have been de rigueur but after last year’s cancelled gigs, it rebounded with a vengeance.


Conducted by Dedric Wong De Li, the concert opened to the raucous strains of Li Bo Chan’s Festive Overture, where a celebratory dance of Central Asian flavour jostled for attention with a soothing serenade. This was followed by a procession of works based on popular Chinese oldies but updated to the present day.  


Ding Yi composer-in-residence Phang Kok Jun dressed up Liangxiao in the blues, with Chia Wan Hua’s erhu accompanied by an ensemble with electronic keyboard, bass and drum-set. There was some improvisation in this Liangxiao Jazz Ballad before the sentimental number revved up its pace to close emphatically.


Sulwyn Lok’s Eternal Shanghai Divas was a medley in tribute to legendary chanteuses like Zhou Xuan and Bai Guang, with melodies Shanghai Nights, Rose Rose I Love You and Ja Jambo paraded quite unabashedly. Upping the ante was Eric Watson’s Hard Rock Fight, based on Li Minxiong’s A Well-Matched Fight, pitting Chinese and Western drums in a take-no-prisoners duel. Percussionists Low Yik Hang and Cheong Kah Yiong did the honours with smashing aplomb.


Quite different in mood was Qi Hao Di’s Tunes Of Zhejiang, a rhapsodic concertino for yangqin (Chinese dulcimer). Here, Tan Jie Qing’s mastery of rippling effects and piquant harmonies held sway in a substantial work that explored modernist idioms alongside the traditional.


It was no secret that singer-songwriter Nathan Hartono, Singapore’s star finalist of Sing! China 2016, was the big sell of the event with three songs. His own Insomnia began with a yawn and the trademark crooning that has made his name, in a Mandarin song that expressed his ennui in lockdown. Oozing charm from every pore, he made a cover of the Bee Gees’ How Deep Is Your Love his own, while displaying wide emotional range in The Longest Movie, arranged by Edmund Song.


The finale was a poignant short film Yu Sheng Mo Yu (A Silent Toss) directed by Jet Ho with music by Yvonne Teo. Set in the HDB heartland, its premise was a celebration of “lohei” in pandemic times, about how tradition may transcend constraints of social distancing and health precautions in a socially responsible way. When cheers and salutations fall silent, kindness, considerations and good thoughts take over.


No seasonal concert would be complete without the obligatory CNY songs, and Hartono returned to lead the proceedings. However, there was to be no communal singing but simply clapping along to the familiar music made the day.      

All photographs by the kind courtesy of Ding Yi Music Company.

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

CELEBRATING BACH II / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall

4 December 2020 

(Streamed on SISTIC Live from 26 February 2021)

This review was published on Bachtrack on 1 March 2021.

With Covid-19 precautions in force, concerts in Singapore are still limited to chamber groups performing hour-long programmes for small and socially-distanced audiences. In the second of three concerts celebrating the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) continued on this thread but shifted the focus from Brandenburg Concertos and Orchestral Suites to his violin concertos.


It so happened that SSO had quite recently lost the services of two first violinists beloved and familiar to local audiences. Co-Leader Lynnette Seah, ever-present since the orchestra’s inaugural season in 1979, retired last year, while Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich left to join the BBC Symphony Orchestra the year before. The performances of Bach’s two solo violin concertos were however in good and steady hands.


Chan Yoong-Han was the elegant soloist in the A minor concerto, exuding a warm tone and  healthy vibrato. Known as an accomplished chamber musician, he blended seamlessly within the ensemble in the tuttis, and illuminated his solo with ear-catching ornamentations. Exercising his right in all three movements, these were tastefully rendered and unobstrusive.    


Acting Concertmaster Kong Zhao Hui gave a more straight-forward account of the E major concerto, without adornments of his own device. Playing from a score, his was also a highly musical reading that revelled in the vigour and athleticism of the outer movements. It was the central Adagio with its songlike repose that lingered most in the memory.   


It was a stroke of programming pique to include music by Bach’s older compatriot Georg Philipp Telemann, which is rarely heard in Singapore. His seven-movement Don Quixote Suite or  Burlesque de Quichotte provided an early example of programmatic music. Depicting scenes from Miguel de Cervantes’ epic novel, the art of story-telling by varied orchestral effects was vividly unveiled by the ensemble. The Overture’s busy play of counterpoint was followed by a series of most amusing vignettes.


A delicious sense of irony dripped from its pages, such as the Don strirring from his slumber in a lilting rhythm resembling a cradle song, to tilting at windmills with octave leaps from the strings. Dulcinea’s sighs punctuated by the knight’s incessant laughter, Sancho Panza being roughly tossed, and his donkey’s stop-start forward motion were also sharply characterised. Even Don Quixote at Rest, which concluded the suite, was unusually animated, hinting at imagined misadventures to come. All these movements were possessed with a playful zest, performed tongue firmly in cheek, under SSO Associate Conductor Joshua Tan’s flexible guiding hand. Providing a cheery close to the concert, whoever said that the hyper-prolific Telemann had to be boring?  


Star Rating: ****

Monday, 15 February 2021

LESLIE HOWARD PLAYS LISZT / The Hyperion Liszt Complete Solo Piano Works Edition

LISZT Piano Music

An Introduction to

the Complete Recordings

Leslie Howard, Piano

Hyperion LISZT1 / 2 CDs / TT: 2hr 38’54”


From 1985 to 1998, one of the greatest recording projects of all time was undertaken by a single pianist, the Australia-born Leslie Howard. Over 57 volumes and 95 compact discs released by the Hyperion label, he recorded the complete music for piano solo of Franz Liszt (1811-1886). The Hungary-born piano virtuoso revolutionised performance and piano literature of the 19th century, which in turn defined the cult of the modern day performing virtuoso. Without Liszt, there would simply be no Horowitz or Lang Lang. Although derided by certain quarters of the critical fraternity, his contribution to the piano, however, is incalculable.


Howard’s recordings defined the length, breadth and depth of Liszt’s creative output and was very much a labour of love. He was however not finished post-1998, having unearthed another few more hours of unpublished, unedited and possibly suppressed works, later recorded on Hyperion, as well as all the two-piano transcriptions of Liszt’s symphonic poems on the Brilliant Classics label.


I had the fortune of witnessing Howard perform and meeting him on no less than four occasions (in London, Singapore and Bangkok) over a stretch of almost 30 years, and can attest that he is still a formidable Lisztian, undaunted by his septuagenarian status. One year ago (before Covid-19 struck) in a basement concert venue at a Bangkok shopping centre, his readings of Two Legends, Reminiscences de Norma and Un Sopiro still had the capacity to provoke the shock and awe that Liszt once inspired.


While the world gradually recovers from the pandemic aftershock, I plan (ever so optimistically) to listen to all these recordings in my free time and record my impressions and observations on this blog. These are not meant to be serious or scholarly reviews, but the musings by an enthusiastic listener with hopefully something to share. So why listen to over 120 hours of Liszt? Because it’s there? Because I’ve got nothing better to do? Because it’s great music or is it just pure curiosity? Perhaps a little bit of everything.


Back in 1998 when Howard first performed at the Singapore International Piano Festival, he recoiled at the sight of the CD sleeves (by no means the complete set, yet) which I whipped out for him to autograph, exclaiming, “You must be crazy to have all these!” My reply then should have been, “Who’s the crazier one, having recorded them all?”, but I kept my counsel.

So here goes.


The Introduction to the complete set (listed by Hyperion as LISZT1) is an excellent sampler with 39 separate pieces covering various aspects of Liszt’s inspiration and output. Howard’s pithy selections mixes familiar favourites with some totally obscure pieces, capped off with a performance of Totentanz with the Budapest Symphony conducted by Karl Anton Rickenbacher.


The programme was subdivided into six chapters over two discs, each with a different theme. Liszt The Poet celebrated the lyrical side of the composer, with works like Un Sospiro and Consolation No.5. Liszt The Patriot saw him at his most nationalistic, represented by Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 (with a short cadenza ad libitum), Csardas Obstinée and shorter folk-inspired pieces. Liszt The Magician plumbed the virtuoso aspect, typified by Rigoletto Paraphrase, Gnomenreigen and the Grand Galop Chromatique (possibly his most vulgar number).


Liszt The Franciscan probed the spiritual realms with St Francis Walking On The Waves and some of his more arcane shorts. Liszt The Romantic returned to some degree of familiarity, like Liebestraume No.3, and transcriptions of Schumann’s Widmung and Chopin’s My Joys. Liszt The Prophet portrayed a visionary in late works like Nuages Gris, Bagatelle sans Tonalité, En Reve, before closing with an imperious Totentanz. Each of its variations are also individually tracked, which is most helpful. With each performance nothing less than first rate, supplemented by excellent and authoritative sleeve notes, this is a most satisfying introduction to the legacy of Franz Liszt.


Rating: *****



LISZT Complete Solo Piano Music Vol.1:Waltzes

Leslie Howard, Piano

Hyperion 66201 / TT: 74’40”


Contrary to popular belief, there is more than one Mephisto Waltz. There are actually four, but only the first (which everyone knows as the Mephisto Waltz, which also exists in orchestral form) is ever performed in concert and piano competitions ad nauseum. Of devilish inspiration, these play on the premise of tritones (the diabolus in musicus) and similar intervals and discords that grate on 19th century sensibilities. Similarly, there are also four Valses Oubliées (Forgotten Waltzes), of which the first is well-known as a popular encore.


Leslie Howard cleverly alternates between Valses Oubliées and Mephisto Waltzes, working through Nos.2, 3 and 4 (late works all), before closing with the familiar Firsts. This makes for an excellent sequence of listening and he throws in the once popular Valse-Impromptu and several less-known shorts into the mix. The famous Mephisto Waltz (No.1) is heard in an interesting version with extra bars which are invariably never played simply because nobody (except Howard) knows about it. Recorded in 1985, this was an auspicious start to the complete edition.  


Discovery of the Album:


Valse de Bravoure S.214 No.1 is a rare gem, delightfully playful and skittish, vulgar in a nice salon-like way, with the obvious emphasis on bravura.


Rating: *****



LISZT Complete Solo Piano Music Vol.2:

Ballades, Legends & Polonaises

Leslie Howard, Piano

Hyperion 66301 / TT: 72’32”


This was the first CD of the edition which I acquired, way back in 1989 at a Sunday brunchtime recital by Leslie Howard (with cellist Steven Isserlis) in Wigmore Hall, London. It cost me a princely GBP11 (then 3.3 Singdollars to 1 Sterling), but it was well worth the outlay. Of the paired works designated Ballades, Legends and Polonaises, only the second of each genre is performed with any regularity in recital, especially the Ballade No.2 in B minor.


It is a true classic, representative of Liszt’s brooding manner allied with the requisite fireworks. Howard performs the version with the quiet, reflective and frankly better ending, without the Horowitzian histrionics. Also included are the Berceuse and the short but quite lovely Impromptu (Nocturne) in F sharp major, the latter famous recorded by Horowitz in his late years.  


Discovery of the Album:

Polonaise Melancolique in C minor (S.223) is the unheralded First Polonaise (the Second in E major, is the famous one), imbued with a strong sense of tragedy but unjustifiably neglected. Some one should try this one out, a substitute for the overplayed Chopin polonaises.   


Rating: ****1/2




Orchestra of the Music Makers

Conducted by Chan Tze Law

Recorded at Esplanade Concert Hall

Released online on 7 February 2021 

(Please click on link above to view concert) 


As Singapore emerges from the Covid-19 circuit breaker, local arts groups have been busy producing concerts, both live and digital for online viewing. The Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) has been no exception, with concerts that even rival the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s for quality of content and delivery.


While one might suggest that youthful OMM is the amateur or junior counterpart of SSO, certain factors suggest that the pro-am divide is much narrower than most imagine. For starters, which orchestra is the first in Singapore to present a Wagner Ring Cycle opera? Alright, that’s somewhat unfair to the SSO. However when one compares like with like, as in the concerts featuring chamber-sized ensembles playing chamber-sized repertoire, there is often little to separate seasoned professionals with the enthusiasm of fresh-faced youth. This recently released concert, conducted by its Music Director, master orchestra-builder Chan Tze Law (once of the SSO), is a good case in point.


Judging by the crispness and incisive quality of the opening chords for Beethoven’s Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, this was going to be crackling reading, and one was not disappointed. The strings and woodwinds were also en point, rendering this briefest of Beethoven overtures an excellent curtain raiser. 

The orchestra also played sensitive accompanist to Australian-Chinese cellist Qin Li-Wei in Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major, a totally lyrical outing where issues of period performance or authenticity became irrelevant. Rich and wide vibratos from both soloist and orchestral strings are the way to go, and there should be no timidity in bringing out a sumptuous sonority for fear of offending academics or pedants.


This was a performance of vigour and virtuosity, not least in young Singaporean Jonathan Shin’s  romanticised but idiomatic cadenzas. No harm in stretching Qin’s technique to the limit, and he nailed these with stunning aplomb. The slow movement was one lovely aria, Mozartean in its song-like seamlessness, providing a calming respite before the finale’s romp of fireworks. Again the sheer musicality displayed by both soloist and orchestra were impressive, as one could just wallow in the music’s joie de vivre without worrying too much about technical details. The encore in Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5, arranged for cello and orchestra by another young local Lee Jin Jun, was a delicious and welcome tidbit.


Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4 in A major, also known as the Italian, received a brisk and lively reading. Brimming with agreeable sunshine, the music was allowed to smile in its fast outer movements. The second movement’s Andante con moto was not dragged out, instead taken in a fair lick underpinned by a quiet and gently chugging rhythm that did not outstay its welcome. Similarly the third movement flowed unimpeded, with the all-important French horn duo acquitting themselves very well.


The finale’s Saltarello upped the ante several notches, and despite its rapid quickfire pace, the ensemble held its shape and form without sacrificing accuracy in the process. Kudos go to the woodwinds and hardworking strings, and the build up to the final climax was thrilling. One might expect that in a Tchaikovsky symphony, but for Mendelssohn, this was no mean feat. Passion is what matters, and there was plenty to go around. It was a fitting close to an hour of good music well spent in the company of OMM.      


Friday, 5 February 2021

A GIFT TO THE UNIVERSE: CELEBRATING BACH III / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review



Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Thursday (4 February 2021)


This was the third concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra celebrating the legacy of J.S.Bach, utilising chamber forces that have become a norm as Singapore gradually emerges from the Covid circuit breaker period. Conducted by Darrell Ang, the hour-long concert attended by a socially-distanced and masked audience, featured three familiar works.


Bach’s diverse set of six Brandenburg Concertos was the closest he came to the baroque concerto grosso form, featuring soloists (concertino group) playing separately from the general ensemble (ripieno group). As such, selected players from within the orchestra were highlighted and given their chance to shine in their solo parts.


Issues of balance resulted however cropped up in the popular Second Brandenburg Concerto, when violinist Kong Xianlong was stood front of stage while flautist Evgueni Brokmiller, oboist Pan Yun and trumpeter Lau Wen Rong (substituting for Principal Jon Paul Dante) sat playing in the rear. Given the prominence and volume of brass, this seemed a logical move, but the overall balance of sonorities did not fully gel.


The violin barely stood out, the woodwinds often receded into the background while the trumpet - most prominent of them all – stole the show. Playing at the highest possible register, this extremely demanding part was also fraught with difficulties. Although Lau has a pleasant and striking clarion tone, the articulation was not always immaculate.


As the ensemble settled into the concert, the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto fared much better. Both flautists Brokmiller and Miao Shanshan played from the back and were as one throughout the three movements. Violinist Zhao Tian played at the front and fully relished his part, with virtuosic flourishes that would not look out of place in a Vivaldi concerto. This was arguably the best ensemble performance of the evening, and closed the concert on a high.


Wedged in between the Brandenburgs was the evergreen Concerto in D minor for two violins (BWV.1043), with Ye Lin and guest soloist Chloe Chua doing the honours. Fences were rushed in the opening few bars, resulting in some untidiness but eventually cooler minds prevailed. Once again, one cannot overstate the miracle that is Chloe, joint winner of the 2018 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition (Junior category), who partnered relative veteran Ye (close to three times her age) to near perfection. The slow movement sung with an aria-like seamlessness and the busy counterpoint of the outer movements were dispatched with spirit and verve.


The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has never sold itself as a baroque specialist, but it is encouraged to continue exploring this repertoire, not just the familiar favourites but to forge out further afield.                 


Tuesday, 2 February 2021



Saturday – Monday (30 Jan – 1 Feb 2021)


Concert life is slowly but surely coming back to life in Singapore. Earlier in January, there were two consecutive evenings of concerts at Victoria Concert Hall, featuring the likes of Singapore Lyric Opera and re:Sound’s chamber groups. The last weekend went one better with three varied concerts at the three iconic spaces of Esplanade Theatres On The Bay. While social distancing, face-masking and Trace-Togethering have become par for the course, a sense of normality has returned. So let us see what transpired.




QIN LI-WEI Solo Cello Recital

presented by Altenburg Arts

Esplanade Concert Hall

Saturday 30 January 2021


Make no mistake about it, Australian-Chinese cellist Qin Li-Wei, presently an Associate Professor at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, is the greatest cellist ever to make his home in Singapore. His various concerto performances and recitals, supplemented by superb recordings of wide-ranging repertoire on compact disc, attest to that notion. This one man solo show, with three of J.S.Bach’s unaccompanied Cello Suites, confirmed that as plain fact.


Quite unusually, he performed these in reverse published order, beginning with the ultra-serious and sombre Suite No.5 in C minor (BWV.1011), also the longest of the three. Straight off, one is struck by the intent and intensity of Qin’s musings. His tone is voluminous, filling the capacious hall with an immediacy of clarity and purity. Never mistake this with loudness, and nothing he does is brash or vulgar. With his kind of playing, the music does not shout into the face but speaks directly to the heart. This continued all through the suite’s six movement schema (Prelude – Allemande – Courante – Sarabande - Dance Doubles - Gigue), alternating fast and slow dance numbers, which was further repeated in the other suites.


Even if Bach originally meant these to be übung (exercises) for his cello or gamba friends, the movements transcended mere technical execution to attain spiritual sublimity in Qin’s  interpretation. As he continued without intermission into Suites No.4 in E flat major (BWV.1010) and No.1 in G major (BWV.1007, also the most familiar of the six), the works get progressively shorter and definitely cheerier. This was, without a doubt, a journey from grim darkness to shining light, with each long-breathed Sarabande in the three suites being focal points for reflection and contemplation.


This was fittingly allegorical to the current Covid pandemic, a gradual but optimistic trudge towards the light at the end of the tunnel. There were surprisingly many children in the hall, and judging by their stillness and relative silence, some of the messages must have gotten through. There was a sole encore, an unaccompanied and truncated version of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise (Op.34 No.14). Needless to say, Qin’s tone and lyricism was simply ravishing.





Esplanade Recital Studio

Sunday 31 January 2021


It’s been almost two years since TO Ensemble last performed a public concert. In the meantime, jazz pianist Tze Toh and his merry band produced a compact disc recording, besides preparing for this concert which saw a smaller and more compact group of players. Missing in action was saxophonist Teo Boon Chye but returning after a hiatus of ten years is erhu exponent Dai Da. With Carnatic violinist Lazar T.Sebastine and Toh being the constants, this was to a more string-based sound to the programme titled The Skies Beyond.


The premise is a multi-millennia history of mankind, from the violence of primal tribes to modern inventions of man which reach for the sky, with references made to Leonardo da Vinci, Amelia Earhart and Stephen Hawking.


One should probably best forget all the titles of the multi-movement concert, for each piece does not conform to any classical form. These are probably best described as fantasies with programmatic inspirations, where initial ideas inputed on piano, electronic keyboard or pre-recorded tape, are later improvised upon by the musicians. There were only few moments when all three performed together, and the play of counterpoint would have been nice but these opportunities were not fully exploited.


Heavy bass chords and clusters occupied the episode entitled War, where the influence of Bartok or Messiaen may be cited. The mood shifted from darkness toward light (an unconscious echo of the previous evening’s Bach cello suites) and there was even a waltz movement for erhu and piano which afforded some sentimentality and nostalgia. With Lazar’s inimitably nonchalant fiddling stealing the show (as he invariably does), eighty pleasurable minutes passed like a flash. Was this easy listening, jazz, classical, crossover, World Music, or a heady conflation of all these? As before, TO Ensemble defies any form of pigeon-holing or classification, yet sounds different at every outing. Tze and Co roll on, and we the listeners are all the richer for it. 


DONALD LAW Piano Recital

Esplanade Concourse

Monday 1 February 2021 


Young local pianist Donald Law performed two short recitals at the Esplanade Concourse, featuring favourites of his repertoire. Beginning with Mozart’s Rondo in D major (K.485), he revelled in its light-heartedness while providing adequate contrasts within the shifts between major and minor keys. In Debussy’s La plus que lente, one of his pet party pieces, he exercised liberties in rubato. Turning its sentimental slow waltz into a series of episodes, there was a sense of dislocation from the Belle Époque, instead looking ahead to the cataclysm that is Ravel’s La Valse, its final fruition. Hopefully he’ll play that someday.    


Moving into serious territory was Janacek’s Sonata I.X.1905 “From The Street”, two movements that revealed a more sober side to the artist. He explained the premise and underlying tragedy of the work in a short preamble, and then showed he meant every word of it. Its narrative arc from expectation (the first movement is titled Premonition) to ultimate violence (Death) and its denouement was well brought out. The catharsis afforded by the sonata might have affected his final selection, the finale of Chopin’s Third Sonata in B minor (Op.58). He started confidently but almost got derailed near the rondo theme’s final statement. Nerves are most probably the reason, but he valiantly weathered the storm till its heroic close.


So that was three concerts in three days as Singapore emerges from the Covid circuit breaker. It’s a start and there are more events, both live and streamed, to come. That is something worth being patient for.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

BAROQUE OPERATIC HIGHLIGHTS / A GRAND TOUR FOR WINDS / Singapore Lyric Opera & re:Sound / Review


Singapore Lyric Opera

Victoria Concert Hall

Friday (15 January 2021)




Victoria Concert Hall

Saturday (16 January 2021)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 January 2021 with the title "Young performers shine in two classical concerts". 

As the Covid circuit breaker is gradually lifted, local arts groups have been gearing up for live performances. One might not have guessed that last weekend, Victoria Concert Hall was filled with the sound of music for two consecutive evenings for the first time in months.


What a pleasure it was to witness live vocal music again, with the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) in a rare foray into baroque repertoire. Arias from five of Georg Friderick Handel’s operas and one oratorio (with no Messiah within earshot) were thrillingly delivered by two exciting young voices, soprano Joyce Lee Tung and baritone Alvin Tan.


Familiar favourites included Lascia Ch’io Pianga (from Rinaldo) and Ombra Mai Fu (the ubiquitous Largo, Xerxes), slow numbers with both singers exhibiting fine tonal control, varied colours and emotive qualities. There were also ample opportunities for outright virtuosity, such as in Tornami A Vagheggiar (Alcina) and Da Tempeste Il Legno Infranto (Giulio Cesare), with coloratura flourishes and stratospheric leaps from Lee, or Tan’s vehemence and rage displayed in Piangi Pur (Tolomeo).


Together in the celebratory duet Caro! Bella! Piu Amabile Belta (Giulio Cesare), the duo still managed to find sparks of chemistry despite the social distance of five metres between them. The 13-member SLO Chamber Orchestra conducted by Joshua Kangming Tan provided keen and responsive accompaniment, besides striking out on their own in the Overture To Alcina and the bustling Arrival Of The Queen Of Sheba from Solomon.


Not to be outdone, chamber collective re:Sound offered an evening of wind music from five of its woodwind and brass members. The quintet formed by Goh Tiong Eng (flute), Tay Kai Tze (oboe), Ralph Emmanuel Lim (clarinet), Chester Kang (bassoon) and Alexander Oon (French horn) generated an outsized sonority that easily filled the upper reaches of the hall.


The programme, while not so familiar to general audiences, comprised wind ensemble staples that was both varied and eclectic. After opening cheerfully with Jacques Ibert’s Three Short Pieces, Franz Danzi’s Wind Quintet in D minor provided some sobriety but still raised smiles for the articulate artistry involved.


Two players became soloists themselves, joined by members of re:Sound’s elite string group, the Concordia Quartet. The first movements of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet contrasted chirpy light-heartedness with autumnal nostalgia. In the latter, Lim’s mellow and long-breathed clarinet part, backed by violinists Edward Tan and Kim Kyu Ri, violist Matthias Oestringer and cellist Theophilus Tan proved the high point of the evening.


The concert concluded with a rare outing for Carl Nielsen’s quirky Wind Quintet. Its three movements combined spiky themes, piquant harmonies and folk influences that both surprised and delighted. The playing was alert to the music’s unusual twists and and turns, even if the finale’s Theme and Variations came across as somewhat disjointed. Nonetheless, these were two evenings well spent with some of Singapore’s finest young musicians.   

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

VIENNA TO LINZ WITH MOZART / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Wednesday (6 January 2021)

Witty and ebullient Mozart from the Singapore Symphony

This review was first published on the international music review website Bachtrack ( on 11 January 2021.


Live concerts with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra began with a pair of Christmas concerts on 15 and 16 December of last year, bringing festive cheer to an otherwise gloomy close of an annus horribilus. The new year’s first concerts were to have been a trio of evenings with Krystian Zimerman playing all five Beethoven piano concertos, but that had to be cancelled.


In their place was a single hour-long concert, retaining its Viennese flavour with the music of Mozart led by the orchestra’s Austrian chief conductor Hans Graf. What could have been crushing disappointment was dispelled when the familiar figure of Philippines-born pianist Albert Tiu strode onstage to perform Mozart’s congenial Piano Concerto No.23 in A major (K.488). The Juilliard-schooled Tiu has been a regular and well-loved fixture in the Singapore concert scene since assuming the position of Associate Professor of piano performance at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music in 2003.


Although he is better known for performing Romantic repertoire such as Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Chopin and Godowsky, Tiu’s Mozart is every bit worth the attention. To its rococo sensibilities, he offered tonal clarity, limpid fingerwork and a singing seamlessness. Accompanied discreetly and attentively by chamber forces, his solo part became an epitome of good taste and utmost decorum.


Then came a most unexpected surprise from left of field. Instead of the usual Mozart cadenza, which is not particularly virtuosic and decidedly short-winded, he served up Leopold Godowsky’s lushly (and decadently) harmonised cadenza. Those familiar with the Pole’s grandiloquent takes on Chopin’s Études might have guessed from the contrapuntal quirks, outlandish sleights of hand and generally unabashed chutzpah.


After this cheeky sojourn to the early 20th century, all returned to the 1780s for the slow movement’s lilting sicilienne. Tiu’s aria-like musings on the keyboard held sway, with melancoly and nostalgia balanced against feather-light string pizzicatos in its sublime last pages. The final rondo had an irrepressible joie de vivre, bringing the concerto to a lively close. Tiu was not done yet, the encore being his own transcription of the selfsame Adagio. Now sans orchestra, little harmonic intricacies were gently teased out, revealing yet more of Mozart’s genius.


The concert continued without intermission into Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has never been renowned as a Mozart or Haydn orchestra, having prioritised Romantic and 20th century repertoire in programming through its 42-year history. This looks to change under Salzburg-resident Hans Graf’s directorship. The performance of the symphony simply sparkled with a champagne-like ebullience. His mustering of small forces at hand lent the ensemble a buoyancy and litheness through its four movements. At no point was its overall architecture or thematic integrety sacrificed for outward display or superficial effect.


The opening introduction was direct and plain-speaking, leading to the Allegro proper with its cheeky appropriation of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus motif. Repeating it like some kind of mantra, the music spelt pure unadulterated joy continuing into the slow movement. While not taken at a particularly slow tempo, there were nevertheless contrasts between light and shade in its alternating major and minor modes. The courtly Minuetto with its gently lilting Trio section saw oboist Rachel Walker and bassoonist Christoph Wichert with delightful repartee. The earlier liveliness returned in the spirited finale, blazing a brilliant path to the concert’s close.


Concert life in Singapore following a gradual lifting of circuit breaker measures has begun to pick up with a combination of live and streamed events. This concert, attended by a socially distanced audience, bodes well for a hopeful but somewhat uncertain future.    


Star Rating: *****