Concert Review – Adagietto: For My Wife – Singapore Symphony Orchestra, 28 Sep 2018 | The Flying Inkpot

BARTÓK Piano Concerto No. 3 in E major, Sz. 119, BB127
MAHLER Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor

Piotr Anderszewski, piano
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui, conductor

Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday, 28 September 2018

Review by Derek Lim

A friend remarked that for Mahler, you want an ‘event’ to make a performance even more special. Perhaps so, but even in the absence of any particular occasion, this ‘usual’ subscription performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra – and Lan Shui’s last as its musical director – was, in my estimation, the best, most interpretatively complete that I’ve ever heard, including any number of performances committed to record.

Lan Shui’s grasp of the work was absolute, and the orchestra followed their outgoing music director to the hilt. Conducting without score, Shui found a new relaxation on the podium that allowed him to seemingly improvise and find new details, while always keeping an eye on the longer line.

Structurally, the ‘first part’ – comprising the first two ‘dark’ movements, were given a slower, weightier treatment that balanced it against the ‘light’ and length of the fourth and fifth movements.

Lan Shui

The funeral march’s opening trumpet tattoo, played by principal Jon Paul Dante, was deliberate, yet confident – an approach that would inform the movement as a whole after the whole orchestra’s spine-chilling opening chords. Staying away from thick rhetoric, Shui kept the orchestra’s sound transparent, while eliciting music-making that was always alive and responsive. There were interesting touches to engage even the most jaded Mahlerite, and risks were taken – the first movement climax, for example, treaded a fine line between tragedy and being over-moulded. Shui stretched the tempo rather deliberately here, but it was convincing in its theatricality and just ‘worked’.

The second movement, marked ‘with greatest vehemence’, was played with just that in its huge outburst of anger. Appropriately ghostly in its aftermath, the winds were beautifully sounded, playing against the cellos – in ravishing form here and later in their long, emotional lament in the eye of the storm. Shui had them speaking collectively with the gravitas of a Shakespearean orator, with a tempo so slow that in lesser hands the tension may have slacked – not so here. Broader, more desperate than usual was the threnody-like passage preceding the chorale, which had the musicians really digging their bows into their strings. The chorale itself had a reckless abandon only equalled by the gloriousness of the SSO’s brass.

The Scherzo that followed was, if anything, even more magnificent – an awesome performance of this difficult movement that had just every piece in place. If anything, this is the emotional heart of the symphony – its ‘development section’ where Mahler faces his demons and dispels them by its end. Shui understood this and led the orchestra to an unforgettable rendition. The movement lives and dies by the capabilities of the horn section, and today they were in greater form than I have ever heard them, with principal horn Han Chang Chou and his section evoking Weltschmerz in the Alpine mountainscape against the hurly burly of the world. There was a winning lilt in the string’s Ländler, with lovely portamenti bringing us back to turn of the century Vienna – the pizzicato section in particular was lovingly clumsy. But it was the sheer energy that left the greatest impression, with a whirlwind coda that made me want to jump up and shout ‘Bravo!’

So many performances falter in any of the symphony’s three parts, but here, the third part – the famous Adagietto and the Rondo-Finale that followed – was interpretatively, if not technically flawless. Taken a little slower than is fashionable to play it nowadays (I estimate about 12 to 13 minutes vs the more usual 9 to 10), the solo harpist’s downward arpeggios introduced this movement lovingly, with Shui never shirking from sentiment, but eschewing (as is the modern way) Mahler’s many string portamenti directions. While the SSO strings struggled to provide as much sound as Shui wanted, especially at the pleading, radiant climax, they were in otherwise beautiful form, really getting into the heart of the music.

The Rondo-Finale that followed attacca sizzled and chugged along with all the energy you could have wanted – a romp of a performance that sparkled with hard-fought optimism while never seeming hard-driven and a joy to hear from start to end. Sure, ensemble work was iffy, entrances were missed and brass sounded frayed, but Shui’s and the SSO’s energy was infectious – their belief in the transformation from dark to light all-encompassing. When the chorale made its appearance again at the coda, there was no doubt at all that the dark had been dispelled – it was pure sunlight and carnival in D-major. An absolute blast of a performance that everyone involved should be very proud of.


Bartok’s E-flat major Piano Concerto, played before the interval, with Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski (right), fared less well. With the pianist in a laid-back mood, though in technically splendid form, the accompaniment seemed out of sorts here, with Shui struggling to make his musical arguments felt, and much of the interplay between soloist and orchestra falling flat. Still, Anderszewski’s playing in the second movement had all the intellectual clarity of the Bach he is celebrated for, and his opening soliloquy was beautifully sounded, heartfelt and movingly communicative – something that his last movement, despite his virtuosity, was not. His encore, Beethoven’s late Bagatelle, the G major from his Op. 126 collection, had all the piercing intellect that he is known for.

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