Sunday 26 November 2023

CHOPIN AND BEETHOVEN / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall

Thursday (23 November 2023)

This review was published on Bachtrack on 23 November 2023 with the title "Bruce Liu makes a spirited Singapore debut."

Winners of high profile international piano competitions can be relied upon to sell concert tickets, and Canadian pianist Bruce Liu’s Singapore Symphony Orchestra debut had been sold-out months in advance. Cult of celebrity, involving young and attractive musicians of Asian extraction like Yunchan Lim, Seong Jin Cho, Yuja Wang and Kate Liu, may be a critical factor in driving interest in classical music for young people in the Far East today.    


The latest victor at the Chopin International Piano Competition (2021) being obliged to perform the Polish composer’s First Piano Concerto in E minor (Op.11) was no surprise. Liu,  who commanded the stage with his lanky stature and casual but respectful demeanour, might just remind some members of the audience of the young Van Cliburn. Predictably, he gave a well-honed performance of the overworked warhorse, oozing Romantic fervour while showcasing requisite virtuoso chops.    


The orchestral accompaniment led by Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste was as full-blooded as they come, but did little to faze a soloist determined to battle all the way. Unafraid to project with ringing resonance, Liu was also capable of lyrical poetry and exercising rubato without overdoing it. The first movement’s development was exciting but more telling was his shaping of phrases in the nocturne-like Romanze and the animated dance-moves of the Rondo finale. The latter was most crisply articulated, with vociferous applause coming way before the orchestra’s final chord had even landed.     


There were three generous encores, two by Chopin (naturally) including the Minute Waltz (Op.64 No.1) and Black Key Etude (Op.10 No.5), both whipped off with an easy nonchalance. The best came in between, with the hitherto hidden voice of the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor gloriously coming to the fore in its da capo repeat.


The concert opened with the Singapore premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.2, revealing a more friendly face of the Second Viennese School. Its harmonic language was an advance on the late Romantic chromaticism of Verklärte Nacht, but without the prickliness of the better-known First Chamber Symphony. Its two movements were varied, the first brooding over some existential crisis, while the second was fast, bounding and waltz-like. Irascible in mood and inscrutable in character, this music found a sympathetic voice, with the musicians responding on cue with no little alertness.   


While Schoenberg had a captive audience, the hall thinned considerably following the Chopin for the concert’s second half. That was a pity as Saraste’s vision of Beethoven’s First Symphony in C major had much to recommend. It has been stated that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra can now comfortably switch modes between big band and period instrument sensibilities. This performance sat unequivocally in the former camp, where vibrato and full-blown sonorities were prized.


Beethoven’s ingenuity to break away from Haydn and Mozart’s moulds was apparent from the first bars, teasing the listener with “wrong keys” before settling in C major. The orchestra did so without resort to gimmickry, and the effect was no less ironic. The so-called slow movement’s fugal entries did not sound academic in the least, while the scherzo-like Minuetto sped with a velocity and intensity that was impossible to dance to. The scalic false-starts of the finale were the barometer of Beethoven’s humour, later racing without a break to a brilliant end. Conductor Saraste was not one to milk the applause, but the orchestra knew by the reception that it had earned the audience’s admiration.     

Star Rating: ****

And here's the same review on

Bruce Liu makes a spirited Singapore debut | Bachtrack

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