Wednesday, 22 March 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, March 2017)

Brilliant Classics 95300 (40 CDs) / ****

Long before Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concertos Series, there existed a run of LP releases in the 1960s and 70s by the budget American label Vox, mostly featuring the underrated American pianist Michael Ponti in virtuosic Romantic-era piano concertos most people have never heard of. 

These and their like have now been reissued by the super-budget Dutch label Brilliant Classics in this 40-disc box-set. Presenting 108 concertante works for piano and orchestra by 73 composers in the most haphazard manner possible, listening to these in a chronological sequence is however next to impossible.

The composers range from Giovanni Platti (1692-1763) to Samuel Barber (1910-1981), whose works were united by a Romantic sensibility even if they did not live within the era occupied by most Romantic composers. There are none of the popular warhorse concertos by Chopin, Liszt, Brahms or Rachmaninov, but highlighted are “unknowns” like Czerny, Ries, Kalkbrenner, Thalberg, Litolff, D'Albert, Stavenhagen, Bronsart, Rheinberger, Raff, Reinecke, Reger and others.

Most of the performances were the only ones available at the time of release, being more than serviceable. Ponti and pianists like Gabriel Tacchino (in Saint-Saëns), Peter Frankl (Schumann's Introduction & Allegro), Rudolf Firkusny (Dvorak), Roland Keller (Weber) and Abbey Simon (Chopin's shorter works) however remain excellent in their given repertoire. 

Although providing many hours of enjoyable listening, this selection is best sampled as a parlour game “Guess the Composer” played by music-loving friends on a lazy holiday weekend.

Monday, 20 March 2017

FROM AN INVALID'S WORKSHOP / Philharmonic Chamber Winds / Review

Philharmonic Chamber Winds
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (18 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 March 2017 with the title"Impressive wind playing".

Wind playing in Singapore has advanced so much that the musical community now supports a number of wind orchestras. Judging by this performance by the Philharmonic Chamber Winds, the standard of playing in the best outfits is very high. This may be attributed to excellent coaching in the educational institutions, exemplified by personalities like Dutch oboist Joost Flach (presently Head of Winds at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts) who conducted this concert.

Flach also played informal host by introducing the works, all by Austro-German composers who wrote for vastly differing genres. Best known was Johann Strauss Junior, whose waltz Kunstlerleben (Artist's Life) opened the programme. Its short introduction dragged a little but the 11 wind players maintained impeccable intonation throughout.

When the waltz rhythm kicked in, the playing picked up in pace and the Viennese dance was in full swing. There was genuine lilt, not an easy motion to maintain, but helped by Flach's bodily movements, swaying in tandem with the three-quarter time beat.

The concert's first half was lighter, and the entertainment continued with three songs by Kurt Weill from his musical theatre works. Kuala Lumpur-based Australian singer Sandra Wolf was appropriately attired in a low-cut black frilly gown and red feather boa as she launched into the Alabama Song from Mahagonny, a working girl's seach for "the way to the next whisky bar".

From English, she seamlessly switched to German for Surabaya Johnny (Happy End), where her dusky voice shone through the evocative and idiomatic arrangements by Wong Chee Yean, who also doubled on the piano. It was the familiar ballad Mack The Knife (The Threepenny Opera) taking on a jazzy and night-clubby vibe that closed the first part on a tipsy high.

Richard Strauss' modestly titled Sonatina No.1 for winds, also called "From An Invalid's Workshop", was the most ambitious undertaking. From the composer's late years, and imbued with the same autumnal mellowness abd kyricism as his Oboe Concerto, its three movements played for well over half an hour. For wind players, this is almost an eternity.

There was, however, strength in numbers. Among the 16 instruments were four French horns, five clarinets (including basset horn) and three bassoons (including contrabassoon, below). Together they produced a fulsome and highly resonant sonority that engulfed the hall. That this kind of depth and volume endured through its entire length was simply impressive.

The solo French horn was entrusted with some of the best melodies, and the busy counterpoint in the outer movements was well accounted for by the supporting instruments. The central slow movement titled Romance and Minuet was lighter, providing some respite and playing of much tenderness. The playful finale with its leaping figurations could have been tiring (and tiresome) for both player and listener, but the spirit and composure never flagged for a second. The audience's prolonged applause spoke volumes of the players' prowess.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2017)

Deutsche Grammophon 479 5529 (2 CDs) / *****

Deutsche Grammophon 479 6724 / ***

Here are two new piano recordings from the German yellow label, but the pleasures are contrasted and mixed. Young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is the perfect exponent for Franz Liszt's multi-layered virtuosity, none better displayed than in his four important sets of piano etudes, performed complete.

The 12 Transcendental Etudes occupy the first disc, and one scrambles for superlatives when faced with the fine filigree of Feux follets or the variegated and sonorous chords of Mazeppa, Wild Jagd and Harmonies du Soir

The second disc which houses the five Concert Etudes (in two separate ets) and Paganini Etudes is just as astonishing, with performances of Un Sospiro, Waldesrauchen (Forest Murmurs), Gnomenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes) and La Campanella that rival the best on record. This album is one for keeps.

Liszt also features in a new recital recording by Argentina-born conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim, playing on a revolutionary new grand piano created by Chris Maene from Belgium, that features parallel-running rather than crossing strings. The instrument has a good balance of resonance and mellowness, sounding best in three Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and Beethoven's Variations in C minor. 

However in Chopin's First Ballade, Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No.1 and Funerailles, Barenboim resorts to banging. This generates an uncharacteristic percussiveness that all but negates the subtlety and musicianship that had come earlier. What a pity, really.  

Thursday, 9 March 2017


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Tuesday (7 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 March 2017 with the title "Evening of unexpected harmonic twists".

It now seems inconceivable that any piano piece by Mozart or Beethoven be heard in concert on anything other than a grand piano. Almost all keyboard music from the late 18th century to early 19th century were conceived on smaller and limited instruments without steel strings. The 9-foot behemoth had yet to be a twinkle in the pianomaker's eye till much later.

German pianist Rolf-Dieter Arens, rector of the Franz Liszt Music Hochschule in Weimar, thus crafted his Mozart with the above in mind despite playing on a modern Steinway. The Sonata in B flat major (K.570) was crisply articulated, with minimal use of pedal yet bringing out a singing tone above myriad figurations. The hymn-like slow movement was lovingly voiced, highlighting its lingering beauty, while the finale sparkled wittily, delighting in unexpected harmonic twists.

This similar thread continued with two shorter pieces, the joyous Rondo in D major (K.485) with yet more surprises up his sleeve, and Fantasie in D minor (K.397). The latter's free form (as opposed to sonata form) began like an improvisation, then worked its way from plain seriousness to final jollity. Only Mozart could countenance such stark emotional shifts, which Arens did well to bring out.

Beethoven's famous Moonlight Sonata has its title Sonata quasi una Fantasia, which means “Sonata like a fantasy”. That explains why its dreamily familiar 1st movement is unique, unlike any other sonata movement.

For this, Arens stepped on two pedals to deliver its soft liquidy wash of sound, lifting his right foot only intermittently with changes in harmonies. The central movement's country dance had lilt and charm, while the finale's maelstrom was given a dry touch, helping to realise its threat of agitation and potential violence.

The recital's second half opened with the rarely-heard Polonaise in B flat major by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Mozart's most famous student. This note-spinner straddled both classical and romantic sensibilities, its unashamedly florid introduction leading to an even more unbuttoned dance in Polish rhythm. Arens' no holds-barred approach made for a refreshing change, the piece fully living up to its nickname La Bella Capricciosa or The Capricious Beauty.

For a Liszt specialist residing in Weimar, the Hungarian pianist-composer's music was sine qua non. Arens offered three pieces from the Third Book of Years of Pilgrimage. The well-known Les Jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este (Fountains of Villa d'Este) came through heavy weather, building up to a gushing climax without subtler gradations of plumbing in between.

More satisfying was the first of two threnodies titled Aux Cypres de la Villa d'Este, where dark shades painting towering cypresses were served with stark octaves and heavy chords portending death. Following this, Sursum Corda (Lift Up Your Hearts) with its angelus of bells brought the recital to a resounding and life-affirming close.

Two encores further sweetened the deal: Liszt's lyrical Impromptu and the Prelude in B minor of J.S.Bach sublimely dressed up by Liszt's Russian student, Alexander Siloti. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, March 2017)

STRAVINSKY The Soldier's Tale
SCHOENBERG Chamber Symphony
Boston Symphony Chamber Players
Eloquence 480 3300 (2 CDs) / *****

Here are some classic 1970s recordings of chamber works by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), centred on his neoclassical phase of composition. During the years between the World Wars, he presided over a paradigm shift from the orchestral opulence of his earlier ballets to sparer textures involving small groups of instruments. 

The quintessential work is The Soldier's Tale (1918), a chamber melodrama with narration featuring a series of marches and dances with a touch of jazz idioms. This is often regarded as the best recording of this work, with a starry cast of violinist Joseph Silverstein, narrator Sir John Gielgud, Tom Courtenay as The Soldier and a  beguiling but positively malevolent Devil in Ron Moody.

The Septet, Octet For Winds, Concertino, Pastorale and Ragtime represent the most attractive of Stravinsky's shorter pieces, made better by the excellent Chamber Players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who combine finesse with virtuosity. 

Stravinsky's greatest composing rival was Arnold Schoenberg, ironically a fellow emigré living in Los Angeles. The Chamber Symphony No.1 is one of the Austrian's most popular and approachable works, and the chamber transcription for five players by Anton Webern is as transparent as it is effective. This and Alban Berg's piano trio transcription of the Adagio from the Chamber Concerto get excellent readings, a good introduction to the Second Viennese School as any. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

GREAT MASTERS OF CHINESE MUSIC / Ding Yi Music Company / Review

Ding Yi Music Company
Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (5 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 March 2017 with the title "Pearls of wisdom from Great Masters".

Marking its 10th anniversary, Ding Yi Music Company invited four veteran Chinese instrumentalists to grace its annual gala concert, where they performed with the ensemble and played mentor to young local musicians. Singapore Chinese Orchestra Resident Conductor Quek Ling Kiong assumed dual roles of conductor and host, enlivening the proceedings with spur-of-the-moment remarks and jokes.

The 150-minute concert opened with Wang Dan Hong's Four Dreams of Plum Blossom, showcasing the ensemble's mettle in an impressionist score based on the Peony Pavilion saga. Then each of the four music-meisters took turns to perform solo and ensemble pieces, beginning with 76-year-old guan exponent Hu Zhi Hou.

A reed instrument with a timbre not unlike a saxophone, Hu's guan elicited a hauntingly beautiful tone, full of vibrato for Two Variations On Yang Guan. The audience held its collective breath, and applauded vociferously for his performance of Zhao Ji Ping's Silk Road Fantasia Suite with the ensemble, which wafted with the aromatic mystique of Xinjiang in China's Far West.

Tang Liang Xing's Sound Of Strings brought out the folk flavour of his pipa in a work that began slowly but got more animated as it progressed. His agility was matched by eight young players (winners at the 2016 National Chinese Music Competition) in a unison rendition of Wei Zhong Le's Spring Snowfall, where their synchronisation was close to perfect.

Erhu master Zhao Han Yang displayed utmost control and finesse in the rhapsodic Capriccio On Qin Qiang, a Northern Chinese melody accompanied by Yick Jue Ru on yangqin. This was contrasted with mellowness in Shanbei Cantabile, which sang of a more soft-spoken variety of heroism. With 13 younger erhu players, the outfit displayed virtuosity in Galloping in the Boundless Prairie, a close cousin of the famous showpiece Horse-Racing.

Li Zhen sported a Mongolian outfit, reflecting his formative years in Inner Mongolia, for his celebratory Daqing Mountains for dizi. He switched this for the fibreglass bass dizi in Longing Of The Grassland, where a deep and throaty tone waxed lyrical in a nostalgic pastorale. He and ten other players had a field day in Feng Zi Cun's Happy Gathering, where a corporate shrillness was exceeded by boundless enthusiasm.

Pearls of wisdom rolled from the lips of the experienced when asked about their personal philosophies. While most extolled the discipline of labour (“Practise, practise, practise” was a mantra), one emphasised an all-round education on understanding Chinese culture. Hu's secret was doing 400 push-ups a day!

Tang exhanged his pipa for an erhu to join Zhao in the famous Jiangnan Shizhu number Xing Jie (Walking The Streets), its ambling pace soon gathering speed for a delightful close. All four maestros converged for the final number, Hui (meaning “confluence” or “conference”), by Ding Yi composer-in-residence Phang Kok Jun. It was a short and undemanding piece with a memorable melody, which left both performers and audience happily sated.

Black and white photography by Andrew Bi, courtesy of Ding Yi Music Company.

Monday, 6 March 2017

FLAVOURS OF CHINESE MUSIC / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Saturday (4 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 March 2017 with the title "First-grade melodies from a first-grade composer".

Victoria Concert Hall was packed to brimming at this concert by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra performing the music of Liu Xiu Jin. Liu has been ranked by the People's Republic of China as a “first grade composer”, a reputation well-deserved on the evidence of this single-composer  showcase jointly conducted by his wife Hong Xia and SCO Music Director Yeh Tsung.

The first work, Continuous Prosperity, was a microcosm of the two-and-a-half-hour long concert. The Vocal Associates Festival Chorus (trained by Khor Ai Ming) opened quietly over a low buzz from the strings, but soon the orchestra broke out into celebratory mode evoking Chinese New Year in the ancient city of Tianjin. Solos from suona, cello and ruan all registered their pleasure in a rousing work where lyricism was never short in supply.

Then came four concertante works, beginning with two movements from The Seven Great Elements of Buddhism (Tathagatagarbha) for konghou, an antique harp-like instrument performed with assured aplomb by the statuesque Wu Lin. Both The Earth and The Fire were slow movements filled with serenity and calm. Simultaneously plucked and strummed, the konghou brought out deep and mellow sonorities in lower registers, and had a brilliant edge at the opposite end.

Familiar to SCO followers will be Liu's Legend of the Merlion, a 3-movement gaohu concerto with concertmaster Li Bao Shun as soloist, which has been recorded on CD by the orchestra. The slow-fast-slow form again highlighted a penchant for melody in the outer movements, framing a stormy centre entitled Raging Sea. Despite its title, there were no Nanyang influences in this music which found Li at his virtuosic and eloquent best.

By now, the listener would have discerned that mellifluous melodies were Liu's best suit. This was most apparent in Lingering Snow on the Broken Bridge with dizi principal Yin Zhi Yang as impressive soloist. This single-movement concerto was a Romantic wallow, its picturesque subject centred on Hangzhou's West Lake, scene of innumerable romances. The pitter-patter of falling snow was prelude to music of unrelieved bliss.

Its diametric opposite was the 2-movement erhu concerto Poetry of the National Spirit, receiving its World Premiere. This was a unabashed peaen to Chinese resilience as well as virtuoso showpiece. Soloist Yu Hong Mei strove mostly for the latter, aided by dramatic gestures of musical violence and patriotism from the orchestra. This was the least melodically-inspired and arguably least memorable of the four concertos.

The grand finale saw a return of the choir for Hero Of The Mountain, 4th movement from Poetry of the Zhuang People. Percussion heralded its opening which led into a joyous dance-song from the choir, before another sumptuous melody dominated the proceedings. The encore was a sing-along with one of Liu's most famous songs Wo Ai Ni, Sai Bei De Xue (I Love You, Northern Snow), certainly a first grade melody, which was most warmly received.

Photographs by courtesy of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra.

Friday, 3 March 2017


Victoria Concert Hall
Wednesday (1 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 March 2017 with the title "Advantage ensemble".

August 31 of 2016 will be remembered with much fondness, for that was the day when re:Sound, Singapore's first professional chamber orchestra, gave its inaugural concert. Its second concert conducted by Singapore Symphony Orchestra Associate Conductor Jason Lai showed that all the  critical acclaim and good notices were fully justified.

The essence of chamber music lies in diminutive forces, with a small number of individuals listening and reponding to each other within a show of intimate cooperation. This was no better illustrated in avant-garde Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti's Ramifications, scored for just 12 string players, each with a different part.

With six players tuned a quarter-tone sharper than the others, the effect was one of deliberate aural disorientation through constantly wavering pitches. Like a floor that fluidly shifts under one's feet, the emanating sound evolved from an incessant buzzing, through high-pitched tinnitus to subterranean growls, all achieved with utmost control at low volumes.

This “music” then evaporated into the ether, leaving the conductor beating time in thin air and ambient silence. These startling plays on sonics will explain why Stanley Kubrick so effectively used Ligeti's music for his iconic movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining.

Altogether more traditional was Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto in G major with veteran Penang-born pianist Dennis Lee as soloist. His delivery of its opening chords was pivotal, a secure statement borne from wealth of experience, which defined the tenor of this reading.  His was a more classical-attuned view, of transparent textures, measured gestures and no little nimbleness, as opposed to the boisterously Romantic version offered by Nicholas Angelich recently with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Lee's Apollo was a world apart from Angelich's Dionysus, but both had much to offer in this  masterpiece. One factor that tipped to Lee's favour was the smaller ensemble, which revealed often glossed-over details besides providing sensitive accompaniment. The rapt conversation of Orpheus and the Furies in the slow movement was a lovely interlude before the unbridled jollity of the finale.

The programming of Mendelssohn's Third Symphony (also known as the “Scottish”) seemed like straying into SSO territory but no, this was a thoroughly enthralling account that revelled in the chamber forces utilised. No victim to Victoria Concert Hall's sometimes feared reverberance, the strings sang without inhibition, while woodwinds and brass rang with bell-like clarity.

Conductor Lai's tempos were excellently judged, the solemnity of the opening movement (evoking the ruins of Edinburgh's Holyrood Castle) contrasted well with the vigourous Allegro that followed. Storm clouds hovered menacingly but sunshine prevailed in this luminescent account, which also gloried in the snappy and mercurial Scherzo, and nostalgia of the song-like slow movement.

The martial finale did not strike a warlike posture for long, instead delighting in the ending chorale cast in the major key. Delivering victory without too much bloodshed, one looks forward to re:Sound's next concerts on 26 April and 2 July.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

AMBER QUARTET / Ones To Watch Series / Review

Ones To Watch Series
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Tuesday (28 February 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 2 March 2017 with the title "Slick show of versatility".

Twenty years after making the Academy Award-winning documentary From Mao To Mozart (1979),  venerated American violinist Isaac Stern returned to Beijing where he was filmed giving a masterclass to a young Chinese string quartet. He commended the players for their technique but commented on a lack of passion and insight.

These caveats no longer hold true for many young Chinese musicians today, such as the Amber Quartet, winner of the prestigious Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition in Melbourne in 2013. Its four members are recent graduates of Beijing's Central Music Conservatory, and they impressed with a slick show of musicianship and versatility.

Opening with Anton Webern's very early Langsamer Satz (Slow Movement, 1905), the foursome was totally at home in its late Romantic language, no more modern than Wagner or Brahms. The langorous and aching lyricism found a sympathetic voice with the players' individual lines, and together the harmonic balance was close to perfect.

In Yunnan-born Chinese composer Zhang Zhao's First String Quartet (2001), the sense of interplay through its four short movements was ever more acute. The title “Totem” provided a clue. Its use of indigenous folk music, dance and vocal traditions was akin to Bartok's strings quartets, albeit with strong Chinese accents.

Violist Wang Qi was assigned the main melodic interest in the first two movements. His evocation of a “Singer” and a “Musician” (actual titles of these movements) were both vivid and earthy. Sonic effects were also legion. Bowing close to the bridge, pizzicatos in various degrees of forcefulness and tapping of the instruments' wood, all conjured a percussive vibe and an authentic rusticity of the Middle Kingdom.

In the slow movement “Sorceror”, Yang Yichen's cello provided a drone that wailed through microtones, like a shaman's voice slipping within the cracks between keys. The rhythmic finale “Drummer” was a wild dance, with echoes of the virile Adolescents Dance from Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring

Mendelssohn's Sixth String Quartet in F minor (1847) was also the German composer's last major work. Conceived in response to his sister Fanny's death, this was a far cry from his usually congenial musings. Opening with extreme vehemence, its outpouring of grief and rage was handled with requisite passion and accuracy. Agitated outbursts alternating with calmer asides made for a listen of gripping tension and unease.

The Scherzo was no elfin dance, but darkly-coloured and served with unremitting intensity. In the slow movement, lyricism reigned but its reflection was one born of longing and regret. The furious last movement had only one theme, hammered home with a frenzied obsession of finality, but not  without a show of soloistic virtuosity from first violinist Ning Fangliang.

Here was one leaving the stage with a last big hurrah, but the Amber Quartet's encore was more subdued. Astor Piazzolla's slow and nostalgic Oblivion was played like they meant every note of it.  

NB: For this concert by the Amber Quartet, Ma Weijia replaced Su Yajing for the second violin part. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, March 2017)

SJ50 / ****1/2

Strange as it may seem, this appears to be the first-ever CD recording of Frederic Chopin's piano music by a Singaporean pianist. Not even Melvyn Tan, Seow Yit Kin or Toh Chee Hung has ever attempted such a recital programme on disc. 

The pianist is 25-year-old Azariah Tan, alumnus of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory and University of Michigan, who was diagnosed to have progressive sensorineural deafness since the age of four.

Despite the disadvantage, he is an utterly musical and sensitive soul, which is immediately apparent in the two Nocturnes Op.62 and two shorter Preludes from Op.28. He finds a song-like tenderness and underlying disquiet to equal degree, and summons the passion needed to surmount the Second Sonata (Op.35), well-known for its Funeral March slow movement. If only there were a little more wildness alloyed to the good taste displayed, it would have been just right.

The Fourth Ballade (Op.52) unfolds ever so alluringly, with its climaxes very well judged. His view of the lyrical Berceuse is an epitome of grace, and the recital is completed by the early showpiece, Andante Spianato & Grande Polonaise Brillante (Op.22) which is sleek and majestic without being over-stated. One hopes to hear more from this genuine and exciting talent.   

News Flash: 

In a quirk of sheer serendipity, it was just announced today that Azariah Tan has been awarded the Paul Abisheganaden Grant for Artistic Excellence (2017) conferred by the National University of Singapore Centre for the Arts. Well done!