Concert Review: INKPOT#87 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: Singapore Symphony Orchestra – 10~11 December 1999
OVERALL NOISE RATING: 2 (Rather quiet.)
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.
by Roy Chan
[Editor’s Note: This is a non-sponsored review of the performances of the Mahler Ninth only. We welcome Roy to the small band of SSO reviewers!]
It is extremely difficult, even impossible to review ‘live’ concerts and give a full, unbiased complete account of the performances as all the reviewer gets are single moments of unrepeatable experiences. One very important and deciding factor that contributes to this dilemma was that our minds would only be able to perceive and experience the “true nature” of a performance when our bodies start to relax and vibrate with the sound waves of the music. Therefore any form of distraction we encounter during the process (noises, physical discomfort, atmosphere, etc.) might impair our senses and in turn our critical judgement. These phenomenon, I am sure, would have all been experienced first hand by every concert-goer. So, I am contradicting myself now, with this review. Maybe – but these two evenings’ performances of the Mahler symphony were so compelling and gripping to me, that I am willing to humbly eat my own words.
It was through a good friend of mine that I ventured into Mahler and I still distinctly recall it was in the form of his Sixth or the “Tragic Symphony”. It was a totally new experience to me – musically and spiritually. Through the music came joy, sadness, happiness, despair, peace, passion, and practically all possible kinds of human feelings. I became quite a Mahler fanatic and went on to own recordings of the rest of his symphonic legacy. But it was his Ninth Symphony that set the agenda for myself, one which brought me to uncharted territories and into alienating twilight zones. Thus it was that armed with a thorough preparation of at least 50 listenings plus watching ‘live’ performances on LD (Bernstein/VPO for those who care to know) that I attended these concerts. But even that hardly “shock-proof”-ed me for the amazing experiences I was about to encounter.
For this event Shui Lan had specifically reseated the SSO: 1st violins on his left, followed by cellos (double-basses behind), then violas and 2nd violins on his right. When I saw this arrangement the moment I stepped into the hall on Friday evening, I knew it was a good sign, an indication of the conductor’s care and concern for the exquisite chamber-like sonorities of this work. (In fact previous Mahler performances have shown Shui Lan to be a conductor with Mahler in his blood.)
All in all, the Saturday performance was the better of the two although the playing of the orchestra on the previous evening’s rendition was more intense. Throughout the Saturday concert, the SSO appeared to more relaxed and focussed, displaying stronger and more precise orchestral execution and exuding greater harmony in the slow passages with an equal amount of control in the brisker sections, with more biting attacks. True, there were still a fair amount of technical deficiencies present but the sweeping intensity and commitment of the SSO, so reflective of their respect for Shui Lan and love for the music that I for one am prepared to forgo these little inadequacies. It is a pity for those who did not attend the Saturday concert. Frankly speaking I cannot imagine the SSO playing this virtuosic orchestral piece this well a few years back. Thanks to out new music director, the SSO is becoming a conspicuously strong ensemble nowadays.
Now let us turn to the interpretation. With the overall tempi for the work generally on the faster end of the scale, Shui Lan opted for an uncontroversial, very noble and very much traditional reading for this supreme Mahler creation. In fact only with cross reference to the score later did I realized how closely he followed the musical markings and directions Mahler himself had took great pain to indicate. Some very noticeable examples would be:
The great care imparted to the phrasing of these broad themes paid off superbly and even if there were times (just a few!) that I thought he might be a little too “caressing”, I have no doubt about its revelatory value. But do not think that Shui Lan is but a literal score reader. The urgency and passion of his treatment of the music so enabled the full view of the masterpiece’s horizontal linearity and its vertical counterpart, that the kaleidoscope of orchestration just seemed more vivid, the outline and design of its architecture more clearly defined. It was no longer just hearing music but also “seeing” music or, as Mahler put it – “A Whole World”. The final movement was admirably interpreted with the right amount of poignancy and nobility. By the end of it, it really left me desolated, overwhelmed and in tears.
Unfortunately, after all these raves, I cannot quite proclaim it flawless, the culprit being a rather inappropriately handled Lndler (German country dance)- styled second movement. This movement, in its wickedly disguised dance form, is not really what it seems on first glance. Instead it is a lengthy and complicatingly intertwined process of increasing deterioration, which finally ends tragically in a wisp. This could be seen as a kind of symbol of Mahler’s belief in predestination: thus Man has no control over Fate and must in the end succumb to it. In these performances, the pulses of life were strong throughout and there was just not enough of the heavy-heartedness one would find in performances by such veteran Mahlerians and protgs as Walter or Klemperer. Or was I, after the tremendous first movement, simply expecting too much?
But despite these minor drawbacks, which would probably get lost in the wealth of so many other good things, these two performances were really eminent – quite simply the most satisfying SSO Mahler performances to date. Now, I can only close my eyes, and pray in deep thought that Shui Lan and SSO would record this piece (anyone officials from BIS hearing this?) in the near future, so that everyone could have a glimpse into the wonderful experiences I have had the good fortune to gain and remember forever.
Roy Chan eagerly awaits the Millenium strike ..5..4..3..2..1..
613: 13.12.1999 Roy Chan