Concert Review: INKPOT#87 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: Singapore Symphony Orchestra – 10 December 1999

10th November, 1999

Victoria Concert Hall
Subscription Series
Last Thoughts…
Robert SCHUMANN Cello Concerto in A minor, op.129
Gustav MAHLER Symphony No.9 in D major QIN Li Wei cello
SHUI Lan conductor

OVERALL NOISE RATING: 1/4 (Could nearly hear a pin drop during Mahler, handphone went off quietly in the Schumann.)

The Noise Rating Index is a partially-objective measurement of pager and handphone blasts, 9pm and 10pm watch beeps, coughing-during-the-pianissimo-bits, intra-audience conversation and other mind-bogglingly inept noises emitted in the concert hall during actual performance of music. It is measured on a scale of 0 to 5, in increasing annoyance.

This review has been kindly sponsored by the Singapore Symphonia Co. Ltd

by the Derek Lim

The violin has the Brahms and the Beethoven, the piano the Beethoven Fourth, and the cello the Schumann Cello Concerto – a Romantic masterpiece, if any, and also very much the musician’s concerto. Virtuostic perhaps, but requiring an even greater amount of musicianship.

How much one enjoyed tonight’s performance, then, would have depended on how much weight one places on each of these qualities. Qin’s tone is beautiful, if rather on the medium-large side, and his performance, though initially bearing all the hallmarks of a potentially ripe, full-Romantic account, turned out to be founded more on the tenets of the Classical school – restrained and beautiful. What I missed was an element of risk-taking. Caution was thrown to the wind only in the last movement, but this was momentary and promptly returned.

Here was a performance which though very musicianly and logical, failed to catch fire and take off for this listener. Accompaniment was adequate, and the cello duets in the second movement were indeed very beautiful. As an inventive encore piece Qin played a Prokofiev “March” on solo cello – wholly suiting his temperament more. Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante next time?

I have rarely used the word “shattering” to describe a performance – it’s a word that embarrasses itself in the sheer weight it carries. But tonight’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the towering masterpiece of German symphonic composition, was just that.

Shui Lan One of Shui Lan’s strongest points is that in his music-making he frequently follows the spirit rather than the letter of the score. I want to emphasize here that I don’t mean that he doesn’t know the score. On the contrary, his familiarity with the score leads him to take unusual risks and decisions.

At the same time, it would probably be safe to say that Shui Lan is not an intellectual conductor. Not for him the careful teasing-out of polyphonic lines, or the cautious reining-in of the orchestra. His is a more instinctive approach, more “feel” than analysis.

Tonight’s performance, then, was an amalgamation of these two characteristics. Perhaps some of the work’s awesome structure in the first movement was lost in the pursuit of certain details – large ritardandi, occasional accents, some unmarked, but the overall impression was overwhelming and touching in its truth and sincerity, and surely if this work’s structure is important, its humanity must be even more so. Shui Lan’s handling of certain transitions was perhaps a little precipitate, but they were certainly thrilling and appropriate in their madness and fear they portrayed.

Even if this is rare repertoire for the SSO, it definitely did not seem unfamiliar to the musicians. Every section was daring in its attack, following Shui Lan’s sometimes dangerous tempi courageously, so that even if on many occasions there were intonation problems, even these seemed within the spirit of the music. Such involvement and enthusiasm cannot be faulted.

It can’t be denied that ensemble playing was often suspect but solo playing, so vital to this symphony (and indeed all Mahler symphonies) was certainly not. The score calls for chamber-like textures and all the solo playing was beautiful and inspired – the result was a first movement that was totally convincing in its every sigh and gesture – never sentimental or maudlin.

Dangerous tempi seemed to be the order of the day. In the Lndler-and-Waltz Scherzo that followed, Shui Lan took some tempo changes, including a particularly risky one nearing the coda, but which the orchestra managed entirely. The spirit of the earthy Lndler was infectious, the waltz frightening in its insanity. If Richard Wagner described the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh as the “Apotheosis of the Dance”, one can only imagine how he would have described the visions of destruction in this empty, clumsy dance scene – a parody of the very dance so beloved by the Viennese. Shui Lan and the orchestra brought the doomed dance to its final resting ground with elan, so that in spite of the rather ragged, even scrappy, playing in all quarters, the result was utterly convincing, and in the circumstances, even appalling. I was left breathless and shaken.

Shui Lan began the apocalyptic Rondo-Burleske rather precipitously, but again the orchestra rose to the occasion. The utter violence and venom was palpable, and the acid tones of the winds and brass here utterly suited the music. As I said earlier, there was none of the transparency, perhaps, achieved by “bringing out” of lines, but then again, even here, it seemed appropriate. Mahler “dedicated [this movement] to his brothers in Apollo” as the program notes rightly accounted. What it didn’t say was that these were his critics in Vienna who had time and time again criticized Mahler and said he was unable to write a fugue. His answer was this disjointed fugal creation, the complexity of which is such that no musicologist has succeeded entirely in analysing.

Mahler in Vienna In the eye of the hurricane which is the lyrical, heart-breaking middle movement, the SSO offered particularly sympathetic playing. The soloists are of prime importance here, of course, and here I want to single out Alix Pengili’s oboe solos, which were performed with all the intimacy and understanding we could have asked for. Particularly amazing was his performance of that difficult downward slide just before the start of the coda. It was the single most beautiful performance of that slide I have ever heard, and Mahler must have smiled on that. The bitter-sweetness of the moment was never more tangible than tonight. Will someone help me thank Mr Pengili?

The marking for this movement is “Sehr trotzig” (“very stubborn”). Stubborn, defiant and ultimately inevitable it was, when Shui Lan brought it back in the coda, it was as a fantastic nightmare of tragic dimensions – a wild “hunt”, the spectre of Death itself perhaps, chasing, running Mahler’s spirit, and each of ours, into the ground. Here was a performance to send shudders down your spine.

Perhaps it was because his, and their energy was nearly all spent after the first three movements, but Shui Lan and the orchestra seemed to run into a little spot of lost concentration at the beginning of the last, slow movement. Solo playing was less deserving of praise here, with the horn and bassoon guilty of some particularly un-beautiful, un-musical playing. Whatever the problems, they quickly got back on their feet and delivered a breath-taking account of the movement.

I have often wondered how Horenstein and Bernstein could stretch their performances of this movement to nearly thirty minutes, and I was told it takes a great deal of patience, stamina, and faith, and never really believed it. I do now. Shui Lan was unable to continually sustain a slow tempo, but fortunately this did not prove to be a huge problem in view of all the inspired playing that we heard this evening, though I daresay it would have improved the performance no end. In the near-white heat of the experience, though, all doubts were swept away, and if Shui Lan did not manage to peer into every corner of the score, he most certainly did “plumb the depths”. He achieved a very logical flow of the myriad ideas this movement offers, and also to kept from sounding just episodic. Throughout the performance I spent most of my time, when not entirely absorbed in the spell of the music, marvelling over and over again at the wonders of orchestration and sheer music that Mahler had written, which Shui Lan and the SSO brought to life with their sheer commitment.

Tonight reminded me again what it is to live, cry, love and die.

Derek Lim is working double-time for the Inkpot reviews. Three cheers.

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614: 13.12.1999 Derek Lim

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