Saturday, 21 October 2017

SSO GALA: JANINE JANSEN / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (19 October 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 21 October 2017

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra gala concert that showcased Dutch violinist Janine Jansen carried in its publicity the adjectives “Golden, Delicate, Ethereal”, as if this would add to the allure of her Singapore debut. It also applied to the evening's first soloist, SSO's Associate Principal cor anglais player Elaine Yeo, the heart and soul of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius' short tone poem The Swan Of Tuonela.

Hers was the most mournful of solos, first answered by Ng Pei-Sian's cello counter-melody, and then gliding over a calm lake of muted strings and soft drum-rolls. Starkly beautiful, the timelessness of a mythical landscape was evoked. Dark and brooding, yet strangely comforting, this has to be the best advertisement ever devised for a land of the dead. 

Large part of its success is owed to the subtle yet decisive direction of young Swedish conductor Daniel Blendulf, who reprised the same in Sibelius' evergreen Violin Concerto in D minor which starred his wife Jansen. Their partnership was not a contest of strong wills, but a dramatic masterclass on how an orchestra supports a soloist to the ultimate triumph of music.

For her part, Jansen has to be the most commanding and charismatic of violin soloists since those cherished 1999 gala concerts which featured a certain Anne-Sophie Mutter. From the concerto's quiet flickering opening, Jansen ran the gauntlet of dynamic extremes with a frightening intensity. She maintained a strong, incisive tone with perfect intonation throughout, so acute as to melt icebergs and boil lava, a volatile meeting of volcanic fire and glacial ice.  

Try as one may, there was no alternative to sitting on the edge of one's seat with this kind of playing. Her pianissimos in the outer reaches of the 1st movement cadenzas and slow movement were crystal clear, and within seconds would expand inexorably into shuddering climaxes.

The audience held its breath through the relentless drive in the finale's “polonaise for polar bears”, and there was no letting up until the last cadential outburst. Prolonged applause and bravos were greeted with an encore of perfect temperance, the sublime Sarabande from J.S.Bach's Partita No.2.

If the Sibelius relived Arctic midwinters, conductor Blendulf summoned Merlin-like a Bohemian summer solstice for Dvorak's convivial Eighth Symphony in G major. The sheer warmth it radiated from the opening bars, aided by Jin Ta's smiling flute solo, would have made both orchestra and listeners relax, but wait, there was to be several stings in the tail.

Respite without vigour and vehemence as contrasts is pointless, and this performance brought the two opposites cheek by jowl as to make both viewpoints feel equally vital. The slow movement's rusticity and ensuing waltz of the 3rd movement sounded all the more special on this count. As trumpets rang out the fanfare heralding the finale, the scene was set for one last celebratory hurrah, which closed with more vocal outbursts of acclaim. Gala concerts are supposed to end this way.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, October 2017)

TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No.1
Royal Philharmonic / DARRELL ANG
Signum Classics 441 / ****1/2

Singaporean conductor Darrell Ang has been busy in the recording studio, and here he conducts London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's evergreen First Piano Concerto. There are hundreds of recordings of this concerto, but he does a fine job in marshalling the forces to support young Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu, who is no slouch herself. 

This is a very idiomatic reading of a well-worn warhorse which does not seek to shock and awe by presenting so-called new insights or vastly divergent viewpoints. Instead musicality reigns, and its visceral thrills and spills are splendidly judged and presented to marvellous. It is thus well worth many listens.

Its coupling is a suite of seven dances and scenes from Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutracker transcribed by the Russian pianist-conductor Mikhail Pletnev. These are highly virtuosic takes on very familiar music, and Dariescu gets her hands full in the March and Trepak (Russian Dance), which are far more treacherous than one imagines on paper. 

Her playing does not eclipse Pletnev's own stupendous recording (on Melodiya) but she gets to the heart of the music with suitable panache. Listen to the closing Andante Maestoso (the famous Pas de deux) for one of Tchaikovsky's most heart-rending and rapturous melodies. This will make a nice addition to the Christmas stocking.   

Tuesday, 17 October 2017


The fourth concert of The Philharmonic Orchestra's Beethoven symphony cycle took place of Sunday (15 October 2017) and the Victoria Concert Hall. The concert conducted by Lim Yau featured Beethoven first and final symphonies. Beethoven's Choral Symphony was the main draw, and the concert hall was filled to the rafters. 

The performances were excellent and full of spirit, something we have come to expect from this orchestra, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. The choirs that participated were The Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Chamber Choir. Here are some photos from the concert.
The ever-steady baritone William Lim was
the first soloist, with his delivery of
"O Freude, nicht diese Töne".
Taiwanese tenor Lin Chien-Chi
sang in the "Turkish march" segment.
The group of soloists was completed by
Taiwanese soprano Lin Ching-Ju and
Filipina mezzo-soprano Angela Cortez.
Proof that conductor Lim Yau
sings while he conducts.
Taking their bows.
Lim, Lin, Lin, Cortez and Lim. 

What are the chances of a Beethoven Ninth performance that features the conductor and three of four soloists with the same surname? (Lin is the Taiwanese version of the common Singaporean Chinese surname Lim.) Imagine a Bayreuth performance with four Furtwänglers conducting and singing.

Monday, 16 October 2017


A Living Room, off River Valley Road
Sunday (15 October 2017) 

Music & Makan is the brainchild of Beverly Hiong, cellist and musical entrepreneur, bringing together the two things which Singaporeans love best: good music and good food. (Good shopping has not been included but I won't count it out at some point the way the event is evolving.)

First held in Christmas 2012, this has become a regular affair at the home of the Hiongs. The formula is simple: get professional musicians to perform and talk about music, engage a Michelin-starred or top-notched chef to prepare tasty dishes, and bring an audience of hungry people who enjoy being entertained. This year, M&M became a ticketed event and one can actually buy tickets via Peatix to attend.

Last Sunday's M&M was attended by over 40 people, including newcomers to the arcane world of classical music. The performers were no strangers to Singapore's classical music scene, and they performed a varied selection of pieces, while gently dismissing the notion that classical music is boring, stuffy or sniffy. Music is a combination of heart and brain, and the pieces were selected to illustrate beauty and symmetry in music, while showcasing form and structure in the process.

Here is the string quartet formed by:
Chikako Sasaki & Christina Zhou, violins
Leslie Tan, cello & Christoven Tan, viola
Beverly provides a friendly intro and
the quartet plays the Notturno
from Borodin's Second String Quartet.
Violist Christoven plays a movement
from György Ligeti's Viola Sonata,
filled with microtones and overtones.

Leslie does an impression of Rodin's Thinker.
To illustrate the fugal form, the
Contrapunctus No.2 from J.S.Bach's
The Art of Fugue was performed.
The concert closed with the first two movements
from Shostakovich's String Quartet No.8.
A peak at the audience, which got to
sing Row, Row Your Boat
to appreciate the canon form.
Chef Kit Wong's awesome spread
of finger foods and canapes.
The event was not sponsored by M&Ms,
but you get the idea.
Musical celebrities like conductor Jason Lai
and Viva Viola man Jeremy Chiew
also made their presence.
We trust everyone who came
had a lovely time.

It is rumoured that the next Music & Makan will be held at an art gallery. To find out where and when, do check-out the dedicated website:  

STEPHEN HOUGH. RACHMANINOV PIANO CONCERTO 1 / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (14 October 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 October 2017 with the title "Passion, power and elegance of Romantic proportions".

It would seem that the names of Stephen Hough and Rachmaninov sold this concert of 20th century music by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. They are old friends, as it was in 1998 at Victoria Concert Hall when the British pianist first played a Rachmaninov concerto in Singapore. On that occasion, it was also Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto that took top billing.

Hough now adopts a bolder and brasher view of the work composed in 1892 but heavily revised in 1917. Launching himself into its thickets with fearless abandon, he is unafraid to unleash its unabashed Romantic emotions. Then and now, his pianism remains one of passion and power, allied with an unflappable elegance that has been a hallmark.

A dramatic ending to
Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto.

The slow movement's gentle solo or the finale's central interlude, where he and orchestral strings had a love-in, were easily high points in this eventful concerto. A final blaze of fireworks elicited vociferous applause, and a reward of two original Hough encores with an Asian twist. What began like Debussy's Clair de lune in a wrong key morphed into P.Ramlee's Getaran Jiwa, and Koreans in the audience would have delighted in Arirang dressed up like a Rachmaninov romance.

The Music & Makan girls
mug for a shot with Stephen Hough.

The concert helmed by Finnish guest conductor Hannu Lintu opened with the Singapore premiere of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski's Fourth Symphony, completed as recently as 1992. Here was atonality's most approachable face, one that kept both orchestra and audience engaged for some concentrated 22 minutes.

Over a quiet, slow pulse, Li Xin's clarinet emerged like the sun rising through fine mist. This introduction to the symphony's torso was one of detailed textural and timbral colour. Soon the ever-shifting dynamics saw the orchestra swing from calmness to violence, from the ethereal to the plethoric, crafting pointillist soundscapes and then broadening to far denser canvasses.

The orchestra responded acutely yet sensitively to conductor Lintu's taut and clear-headed direction. Anything less would have resulted in incoherence and what might seem like random orchestral doodlings. The short emphatic drive to the work's powerful close was also convincingly dealt with.

SSO has lived with Shostakovich's First Symphony since its second season in 1980 when it performed at the old Singapore Conference Hall. Ensemble and solo playing has progressed over the years, contributing to a tight and cogent reading. The single constant was violinist Lynnette Seah, Leader of 37 years ago, who more than ably shared solos with present Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich in the first movement.

Pathos, wit and irony, calling cards of this precocious symphony by a mere teenager, were laid on trenchantly through its four movements. If there were standout moments, Rachel Walker's oboe in the slow movement, Liu Chang's droll bassoon and Jon Dante's muted trumpet in the finale deserved the plaudits among the highlights of what was a truly distinguished performance. SSO's mastery and credentials in 20th century music are now beyond any doubt.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, October 2017)

DEBUSSY Jeux / Khamma
La Boite A Joujoux
Singapore Symphony Orchestra 
BIS 2162 / *****

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra's second all-Debussy recording conducted by Music Director Lan Shui is an even greater success than its first (La Mer and Images For Orchestra), and that is partly down to its rarity value. All three works come from the later years of French impressionist composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), and are ballets not often heard in concerts or recordings. 

Perhaps the most familiar is Jeux (1912-13), a frolicsome ménage-a-trois between two girls and a boy in a game of tennis, choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. The music is also among Debussy's finest, even if the themes are elusive on first listening. 

Debussy did not survive to complete the orchestrations of the other two ballets, which were originally scripted as piano solos. La Boite A Joujoux (1913) or The Toybox is a children's ballet, was orchestrated by Andre Caplet. It is in the spirit of Debussy's Children's Corner Suite and includes the ragtime dance Le Petit Negre, a close cousin to The Golliwogg's Cakewalk

Virtually unknown is Khamma (1911-12), orchestrated mostly with the help of Charles Koechlin, which has an ancient Egyptian setting and also sounds the most exotic. Lan Shui and the orchestra's attention to detail and nuance in all three scores, the highlight of the disc, is brilliantly captured in this highly realistic recording. Possessed with a wide dynamic range, this is breathtaking stuff.   

Tuesday, 10 October 2017



This is the third year in succession that I will be attending that rarest of piano festivals, Rarities of Piano Music at Schloss vor Husum. Held in the northern German seaside town of Husum, this festival delights in presenting piano music that is not often heard, the unknown, underrated and undiscovered gems of the piano repertory. All too often, the likes of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Rachmaninov dominates the programmes of piano recitals (and piano competitions), and the risk of over-familiarity and contempt looms large for pianists and listeners alike.

Husum is that breath of fresh air and much-needed shot in the arm, a chance to listen to music afresh, without pre-conceived ideas and prejudices. Some works may prove to be too arcane but much awaits discovery and the experience of new ears.  This 31st edition of a well-loved and all too unusual institution provided me with year another 9 days of musical bliss, a welcome relief from the humdrum of daily toil.   

DAY 1: Saturday (19 August 2017)

It did not start well at all. First, my flight to Helsinki was cancelled. I only learnt that fact a few hours before leaving for the airport. Thankfully, there weren't so many people flying British Airways, so I arrived in Hamburg via Heathrow. Next, having not read the weather reports, my suitcase was packed with beachwear all set for last year's sunny Husum summer. The reality was cold and drizzly. I will freeze but will survive.

A canopy of green leading to the Schloss.

Nothing beats the frisson of anticipation when one walks through Husum's Schlossgang and be greeted by the canopy of trees leading to the Schloss and the chatter of birdsong. It is a good sign, and the familiar faces that make it to the Mecca of pianophiles – Satoru, Ludwig, Jesper, the Peters (Froundjian and Grove), Elisabeth, Kathy, Bertrand, Fritz und Norbert - all add to this unremitting sense of well-being. We're all on first-name basis now.

Recital 1 (4.30 pm)

No matter what one thinks, Paul Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis will always be a rarity. This was his version of The Well-Tempered Clavier and Die Kunst der Fuge wrapped in one, comprising a Prologue and a series of Interludes and Fugues, all in his typically quirky and astringent style. There is as much conformity to structure and form as there is much wit, the improvisatory interludes followed by the wryly wrung fugues, brought out trenchantly by the young Lithuanian-Russian's hands.

Some of the themes sound atonal (borne from tone rows), but when heard repeated through a series of voices, these become listenable, even likeable. The piano sounds more reverberant that usual, and this serves the music well. Dryness makes its taste like cardboard, but we're having chocolate mousse now. Geniusas' encores of Wagner's Elegie (hints of Tristan), Leonid Desyatnikov's madcap Chasing Rondo and Grieg's Vision (from Lyric Pieces) close the first of two Young Explorers recitals on a winning high.

Recital 2 (8 pm)

The Schloss' longtime avian residents are on full song today, noisily greeting the second of the Young Explorers recitals by the Finn Satu Paavola. The personable young lady looks far younger that her bio suggests. She's supposed to be 37 but appears less that half that age. A teenager appearing in Husum would be a first. But she is as serious as they come, playing a rare combo of Sigismond Thalberg and Charles-Valentin Alkan, both early Romantics. The two Thalberg opera fantasies (after Mercadante and Donizetti) showcase the best bel canto qualities on the piano, a singing line and florid filigree.

One almost feared she be overmatched in Alkan's Sonata “The Four Ages”, a wild 4-movement beast that begins with the uproarious 20s and ending with a resigned 50s (people did not live that long in the early 19th century). Her phrasing is clipped and almost awkward in its opening but she soon settled as the ages progressed. One supposes it gets easier when the tempos slow down. She compensates for her diminutive physical stature by projecting a big sound in the octaves and chords. Her two encores, Thalberg's well-known transcription Casta Diva (Bellini's Norma) and obscure Air d'Eglise (Fetis) served as slow and satisfying bookends.    

The Art of Listening,
a collage I made from last year's festival.