Monday 31 July 2017


Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (28 July 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 31 July 2017 with the title "Roaring brass gives way to whisper".

German Romantic music was on the cards at last Friday's Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert conducted by music director Shui Lan. The evening opened with Richard Strauss' tone poem Tod und Verklarung (Death and Transfiguration). Beginning quietly, one could hear and feel the slow heaving pulse and heavy breath of a dying man portrayed in the music.

From the depths of despair came his last ditch struggle, that final and desperate grabbing of straws of an ebbing life. Music that could so indelibly depict such a scene was a speciality of Strauss, and how the orchestra responded – from the thread started by solo oboe, passed to solo flute before arriving at Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich's violin. The build-up to a climax of throbbing health was thrilling, even if ultimately illusory.

The brass roared and strings quivered, but it all soon passed as crescendo gave way to a terminal diminuendo. The realisation that death was merely a portal to an uknown beyond was keenly grasped in Shui's taut but not unyielding direction. That similar narrative would also transpire in Brahms' Third Symphony, but early Romantic Felix Mendelssohn's First Piano Concerto in G minor provided the interlude that came in between.

Thrust into the solo spotlight was Singapore's eternally young pianist Melvyn Tan. Not content to be the light comic relief, his arch-virtuoso role threw in chords, octaves and flying notes galore. His long arms flayed and flapped as the seemingly beleaguered piano held the mighty orchestra at bay for much of the outer movements.

It was in the slow central movement where sheer poetry reigned, and the piano's song floated above soft strings as opposing forces were kept in reserve albeit for few precious minutes. Heralded by an awakened brass fanfare, the finale's wild hunt was on, and Tan's energetic leaping through hoops of fire made for a sonorous spectacle.

Beaming ever so widely, his encore was the only non-Teutonic music on offer. Debussy's Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain) from Estampes was a piquant Gallic palate-cleanser after so much sauerkraut.

Johannes Brahms' Third Symphony in F major is often considered the Cinderella of his four symphonies. However a best case was made possible with its Schumannesque opening, imposingly stated but not overblown. This and much that ensued were sympathetically voiced, with excellent brass in the first movement climax and an every-steady woodwind chorale for the beginning of the second movement. 

The performance came into its own in the sublime third movement, when the cellos sang in its quasi-tragic plaint, and capped by Han Chang Chou's fine French horn solo near its end. The finale scaled the heights of passion and much like the Strauss work that began the concert, worked its way to a quiet close. When a symphony ends in a whisper, certain victory appears to have been lost, but the applause which came after a decent period of silence proved that the effort was clearly appreciated.

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