Concert Review: Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor with Stephen Hough, Mahler Symphony No. 6 with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui

Mendelssohn Piano Concerto in g minor, Op. 25.
Mahler Symphony No. 6 in a minor ‘Tragic’.

Stephen Hough, piano.
Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
Lan Shui, conductor.

Friday 16 Jul 2010, Esplanade Concert Hall

It’s a cruel fact that whichever work gets paired with anything as vast as Mahler’s Sixth Symphony is doomed to be overshadowed; just ask Dmitri Mitropoulos. This time it was Mendelssohn’s slender Piano Concerto in G minor, a twenty minute piece by the Dresden master.

Giving it its full value was the English pianist Stephen Hough, who played out its Romantic virtuosity and passion as well as its Beethovenian Sturm und Drang. The first movement, a stormy Allegro agitato whose melodic invention somewhat does not live up to its development, has cascades of notes which Hough tackled effortlessly, though from where I was seated (Circle 1) there were some projection issues in his somewhat slender sound.

I liked the absolute calm that came in Mendelssohn’s bridging solo piano cadenza very much, as well as the Finale, with its lovely fairy music so characteristic of the composer. As a solitary encore Hough teased the orchestra’s Russians (and the audience) with a transcription of ‘Moscow Nights’, opening and ending, however, with Rachmaninoff’s tolling bells from the Second Concerto.

With Mahler we moved from one composer-conductor to another, and from one concerto to another, for his Sixth Symphony is, to me, a sort of concerto for virtuoso orchestra. At eighty minutes it takes a great deal of pacing and rehearsal to make all its points felt. Vital to all this, of course, is the conductor, whose vision and command over his orchestra decides if the performance will be a mess, ordinary, or an event.

I think that tonight’s performance was a few (ok, quite a few) rehearsals away from becoming an event, and more’s the pity for that. That Lan Shui has ideas for this, the most Classical of Mahler’s symphonies, is not in doubt, but despite an obvious affinity with the composer, there’s no escaping the dismaying frequency of missed entrances, false starts and ensemble problems in this performance.

Lan Shui’s Mahler is closer to Bernstein’s conception than, let’s say, a Horenstein or Barbirolli, that is to say, agitable and excitable rather than stoic. His first movement, Allegro energico, more or less ignoring the ‘ma non troppo‘, set the pace for what was to come, and a fast pace it was too, a ruthless military trampling which Mahler wrote before the horrors of the first World War, which he was not to live to see.

His vision seemed to feed off the propulsive energy of the first movement, but with a few quirks. First, he did not observe the da capo repeat, which most modern conductors follow. If a slower basic tempo had been chosen this might have been more acceptable, but as it were the Classical balance of the movement, as well as the comparative weight as compared with the massive Finale, were disturbed.

Details and balance are not Lan Shui’s strong points, and these worked against his favour. For example, the recurrent major to minor triad undermined by the middle note failing to sound out adequately. Lan Shui’s transitions were also incredibly unsubtle, his phrasings somewhat unyielding and overstated. Among idiosyncratic details that did give some thought, but which I don’t think really worked, was the highlighting of several portamenti in the Alma theme, which was marvellously handled and with true Schwung.The twilit, shimmering cow-bell episodes were another highlight of this movement, and this was again very well characterized, but I think that overall, the return of the first (march) theme could have been more measured, to bring in that sense of inevitability. The final exuberant rush in the coda was exhilirating, with the whole orchestra resounding in fine form, appropriately weighty and joyful.

The order of the middle movements of Mahler’s Sixth have been debated to death, and I much prefer the Scherzo-Andante order rather than the reverse. I think that there is more theatre and drama in the S-A order – the major key ending of the first movement is undermined by the return to a minor in the savage Scherzo.  No matter. In this performance, Lan Shui took the A-S order.

The Andante moderato is one of Mahler’s most ravishing and cathartic movements, and here was the SSO at its best behaviour, with some very intelligent pacing from Lan Shui. The obligatto horn played well at first but gradually deteriorated as its passages became more frequent and it had to play more chamber music with the other instruments. In this movement as well, Lan Shui indulged in some rather unsubtle musical signposting, but the pastural visions, with wounded woodwinds, horns in the mountains and the glissando strings made their mark. Alexander Souptel’s solo violin, as always, could certainly take a little toning down of its vibrato. Overall this was the most successful movement, if only it had been placed third, as it belonged.

The Scherzo, very swift, in keeping with the tempo of the first movement, banishes any relief the Andante moderato might have brought. Here it was appropriately brutal and grotesque, with the orchestra’s ensemble frequently in tatters, but still quite in keeping with the general mood and feel of the piece, with some nice contributions from the xylophones, especially in the altvaterish Trio.  Amongst all this, it’s a pity that the  bassoons didn’t enter in the coda in the coda, as there is a feeling that something is being extinguished here that is particularly potent.

After the frequent messy ensemble and missed entrances, the Finale was the movement where, ironically, almost everything came together.  Perhaps a more moderate tempo would have allowed the orchestra to play the notes they should, but there was an infectious energy that really made me sit up and listen. The introduction caught the eerie, fear-fraught atmosphere of the work really well, with the harps and celesta showing how Mahler really was a master of orchestration. The brass chorale in the funeral march section was again really well-handled, full of foreboding.

Despite a rather messy entrance into the main march section and persistent issues in the sounding of the major-minor triad, this was the movement where there was a real sweep, and which the orchestra really hit its stride. There were moments where I felt a lump in my throat, and I was caught in the giant struggle that unfolded ahead of me.

You don’t get a detailed discussion of Mahler’s Sixth without talking about the hammer. Jonathan Fox obviously gave a lot of thought into fashioning the hammer, that sounded twice, not thrice, using “a giant wooden hammer onto a custom-made 4×4 wooden box, hollowed out to aid projection but padded on the top to dull the effect of actual contact.” The effect was splendid – loud, but not metallic, and certainly set my pulse racing, the first time round anyway. A quibble though – before the actual blow to the hammer, Lan Shui again sign-posted with a huge rallentendo – really unsubtle.

Still the drama carried everything before with it, with the death-laden trombones playing magnificently in the coda. And when the final blow was thrown and the orchestra and the timpani played their tattoo of death matter-of-factly in A minor, there wasn’t a soul who wasn’t, despite all the everything that had gone before, untouched by Mahler’s vision.

Someday Lan Shui will get all the rehearsal he wants, and play the Scherzo first, and perhaps, then, I will get the ‘Tragic’ Symphony of my dreams.

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