Concert Review: Russian Masterpieces II: Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique – 3 Oct 2013
Yoel Levi, Conductor
Renaud Capuçon, violin
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
3 October 2013, Thursday
Esplanade Concert Hall
Review by Chay Choong
This all-Russian programme was one of the more anticipated concerts of the year. The Israeli conductor Yoel Levi (right) and French violinist Renaud Capuçon are both highly acclaimed musicians, and neither of them are new to working with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Just a couple of days back, Renaud Capuçon gave an excellent recital together with faculty members and students from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, and many were eager to hear him in action once again. In addition, it was new concertmaster, Igor Yuzefovich‘s second concert with the Singapore Symphony.
The night started off with the ‘Pulcinella’ Suite, a work that features solo instruments extensively. Despite a very rough start, the concertmaster, regained his composure quickly by the second movement and everything magically fell into place. The well-executed solo passages, especially those from the principal cellist and oboist, were mesmerising and yet blended perfectly with the ensemble. Yoel Levi chose a relaxed approach rather than a stylistic one; he projected an air of calmness throughout and it was amusing to watch him move rather idly even during the spirited Tarantella. The change in momentum did not affect the orchestra’s ensemble at first but slowly they crept closer to the edge of erupting into chaos and I found myself holding my breath with anxiety. Thankfully, the trombones and trumpet gave the orchestra some breathing space in the Toccata and the orchestra managed to deliver a splendid finish to the fast section.
The winds-only Gavotta started off at a slow, almost boring, tempo, but luckily it was short-lived. The first variation has an interesting oboe-horn duet, but it was unfortunately marred by the unstable intonation of the horn. Following this is a challenging variation and, similarly to the end of the Tarantella, I held my breath once again as they struggled to stay tightly together. Vivo is the most famous movement of the work, and the brassy trombone gave a clumsy but comedic performance that drew chuckles from the audience, and the double bass provided an impressive accompaniment with his sonorous, yet delicate tone. Yoel Levi seemed to have utmost faith in the orchestra for the Finale, conducting gracefully and collectedly through the excitement, but the orchestra successfully encapsulated the joyous spirit that gave the piece an exciting finish, setting the perfect mood for Capuçon’s entry in the Glazunov concerto
Renaud Capuçon (right) is an internationally renowned violinist, and it puzzled me to see him use his scores. I later discovered that it was not uncommon for him to bring out his sheet music, though he almost never refers to them. However, the night’s concert was one where the audience might have been led to believe that he was unfamiliar with the concerto. His playing was plagued with intonation imperfections and the execution of the piece lacked planning; in particular his tone was too unvaried. Capuçon playing the opening theme of the piece beautifully, but that was about all that was fascinating in the concerto as his consistent tone colour slowly made the music seem dull even for those familiar with the work. There was a flash of brilliance in his cadenza though – his double-stops portrayed two vastly different characters in duet and I subconsciously glanced at Yuzefovich briefly to see if he was involved. The orchestra’s accompaniment was fantastic, and at times I felt that they had outperformed Capuçon with their varied tone palette in contrast to his monotonous sound. His deeply moving rendition of Gluck’s Melodie as an encore affirmed my belief that he is a world-class musician and that the Glazunov was simply an unfortunate rendition.
The audience after the intermission shrank; it seemed that some came simply to watch Capuçon. They missed out on the best music of the night – Tchaikovsky’s ‘Pathetique’ Symphony. Melancholy filled the hall from the first notes of the bassoons, while the double basses painted a dark backdrop. The violas thoroughly impressed me with their bold solos in the introduction and extremely crisp spiccato accompaniments in the following subject. Yoel Levi was careful in suppressing the orchestra’s climaxes, especially during the rising scales of the violins in the theme, and his plan worked amazingly. Several members of the audience jumped at the unsuspecting crash in the Allegro vivo development, and I stared in disbelief as Levi displayed a level of ferocity that I did not believe he was capable of. This was a turning point of the night for Levi; from here onwards the spirit of the music was channelled through his every movement. The orchestra seemed to be inspired this change and this was reflected in the more passionate reprise of the theme to close the movement.
I have a love-hate affair with the how the sections of the orchestra interacted with each other. While their excellent choice of tone appealed to the colourist in me – for example, the timpani and lower strings in the central plaintive section chose exactly the right tone, giving excellent support to the strings above them – there were moments of slightly lacklustre teamwork between sections – though their ‘baton-passings’ were always seamless in rhythm, dynamics often clashed horribly.
The third movement was a display of virtuosity of the orchestra. While expertly executed, it was not a captivating rendition as there was nothing special interpretatively and fatigue was rather noticeable especially amongst the winds. Yoel Levi was a joy to watch. There was nothing flashy in his conducting – he gave extremely clear beats, never attempted to ‘fix’ the sound of the orchestra and his movements reflected the character of the music he had in mind. Levi chose to allow the audience to be fooled into believing that it was the end of the symphony with a victory leap on the last chord of the movement, and he classily made no sign to acknowledge the applause to allow the knowledge of their mistake to sink in. The final movement was the most emotional movement of the night, beginning with Tchaikovsky’s sorrow-laden theme. At the final climax, Levi refused to allow the mood to lighten gradually, but chose to let it die off abruptly with the resonance of the gong. Slowly but surely, he brought the mood back to that of the beginning of the symphony, and the superb cellos and basses patiently brought the concert to its grim, solemn close.