Monday 20 May 2024

SMETANA AND DVORAK / VCHpresents Chamber / Review


VCHpresents Chamber 
Victoria Concert Hall 
Friday (17 May 2024) 

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 May 2024 with the title "Warm evening of Bohemian rarities at SSO's chamber concert."

Was it good planning or mere coincidence that this year has been a boon for lovers of Bohemian music? Concertgoers might remember superb performances of Antonin Dvorak’s chamber works: Japan’s Aoi Trio in his Third Piano Trio (Op.65) and More Than Music & Friends in the Second Piano Quintet (Op.81). 

Sunday will see the Singapore debut of the Prague-based Pavel Haas Quartet in music by Josef Suk, Bedrich Smetana and Leos Janacek, but this evening’s offering by members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra should be remembered equally fondly. 

Smetana (1824-1884) is known as the “Father of Czech musical nationalism”, with tone poem Die Moldau (or Vltava) from the orchestral cycle Ma Vlast (My Country) being his best-loved work. Attended by a well-filled house, the 200th anniversary of Smetana’s birth was commemorated with the rare performance of his Piano Trio in G minor (Op.15). 

Composed after the tragic death of his daughter from scarlet fever, the music exuded sadness, opening with violinist Ye Lin’s impassioned solo. Throbbing chords from pianist Albert Tiu added to the pathos while cellist Christopher Mui’s lyrical lines provided a more calming influence. 

The threesome worked very well together, even if the work often highlighted the violin. Ye’s robust tone and flawless intonation seemed symbolic of Smetana’s representation of feminine pride and dignity, which was lent a poignancy through his daughter’s loss. 

The Scherzo was more light-hearted, with a folk dance-like quality, later transforming into something more stately without making a grand statement. The Presto finale fired on all cylinders, with pianist Tiu’s prestidigitations dictating the pace. Cellist Mui’s big melody almost stole the show, before the main theme ground into a slow funeral march. 

OK, who just farted?

Everything's alright,
it was just the VCH ghost!

The brilliant close to the trio got the plaudits its deserved from an unusually mature and sophisticated audience, on a rare evening which had neither fidgety children, errant handphones nor inappropriate clapping between movements. 

The rarities continued into the second half with the Second String Quintet in G major (Op.77) by Dvorak (1841-1904), performed by violinists Chan Yoong-Han and Sayuri Kuru, violist Gu Bing Jie, cellist Ng Pei-Sian and bassist Yang Zheng Yi. The unusual scoring with string quartet backed by double-bass translated into music of genuine congeniality, not unlike that experienced in Franz Schubert’s Trout Quintet

Thus its four movements radiated warmth and mellowness which never overstayed their welcome. The opening movement bristled with vigour, contrasted by a Scherzo which was not so much a joke, but a play on listeners’ expectations. Tempo and rhythmic shifts, skilfully handled by the players, had one wondering whether this was a dance, or something more serious. 

The slow movement oozed Slavic intensity. Violinist Chan and cellist Ng strove to maintain its melodic lines and did so gloriously. The finale’s driving rhythms, with ensemble at full throttle, ensured this Bohemian rhapsody closed with highest possible of spirits.

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