CONCERT REVIEW: A Beethoven 7th for the Ages – SSO 40th Anniversary Gala – 18 Jan 2019

SSO co-concertmaster Lynnette Seah, Lan Shui, PM Lee Hsien Loong, SSO Chairman Goh Yew Lin and SSO CEO Chng Hak-Peng cutting the birthday cake, courtesy of Conrad Hotel. We all like a bit of cake, don’t we?

LEONG YOON PIN: Dayong Sampan Overture
IVES: The Unanswered Question
BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 “Emperor”
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui, conductor
Lim Yan, piano

18 January 2019
Esplanade Concert Hall

Review by Derek Lim

SSO Tickets for TFI classical music reviewers have been kindly sponsored by Singapore Symphony Group

If run-of-the-mill birthdays are useful occasions for self-reflection, general life re-evaluation, and taking stock of what’s to come, then landmark birthdays – you know what I mean, those ending with 0’s and 5’s – almost guarantee a certain amount of introspection and accompanying maturity.

Tonight, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 40th anniversary. Opening the evening with a customarily prepared speech, SSO chairman Goh Yew Lin, quoting a critic from the London Spectator who asked if the SSO was one of the great 21st century orchestras in the making. In effect, he said that he and the SSO wanted to make that a reality, and joking in a not-so-joking way, said that they had 81 more years to go.

So how much more work needs to be done to attain this lofty goal? In the spirit of taking stock of where we are, my answers would be ‘a long way’, ‘not too far off the mark, actually’ and ‘what do you mean? they’re already there!’

The evening’s programme included two of the works on the original programme in January 1979 – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 and Ives’ ‘The Unanswered Question’, with Leong Yoon Pin’s ‘Dayong Sampan’ Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 completing the evening. It was also to be Lan Shui’s second last concert, before his Mahler 2 farewell concerts next week.

After a lethargic performance of the ‘Dayong Sampan’ overture – soft-edged in the introduction, with many of the spiky rhythms swept over, though not lacking in colour – Ives’ ‘The Unanswered Question’ was spellbinding in its concentration. Lan led with utmost patience, inviting the audience into a trance-like state with the sheer beauty of the strings and the trumpet ‘question’, played resoundingly by David Smith from on high at the organ loft, while the ‘greek chorus’ quartet of four flutes sounded effectively and increasingly agitated. One was almost afraid to break the silence at its end.

Would that the ‘Emperor’ concerto were as successful. This performance almost completely failed to take flight, with newly-minted Singapore International Piano Festival director Lim Yan (right) neither plumbing the poetic depths of the piece – though largely note-perfect – nor impressing with the music’s virtuoso elements. This was Beethoven with his hair neatly coiffed, with not a strand out of place, lacking temperament from both soloist and orchestra, both of whom were content to let the other take the lead. Even the usually exciting marziale orchestral tutti passage, interspersed with pianistic flourishes leading up to the cadenza, struggled to make its mark. The slow movement, played at a more stylish Andante than Adagio, was similarly more prosaic than philosophical. The finale lacked sparkle, light and joy. A disappointing outing, given his impressive show with the Borodins last year.

The Beethoven Seventh that followed the intermission was clearly cut from a different piece of cloth. This was the SSO as we have seldom seen them in the classics: totally disciplined, always engaged and in full command of the music. Lan Shui led the SSO deftly through Beethoven’s towering achievement as if the orchestra was not only a single instrument but an extension of his own hands.

Tempi were Historically Informed Performance (HIP) -influenced but not maddeningly so, with transparency achieved through careful balancing and restrained use of vibrato. Smaller kettledrums, played with hard-headed timpani mallets, added to the overall ‘authentic’ feel. This is not to say that this was in any way Beethoven-lite – the opening chords of the first movement thundered with the best, and there was nothing lacking in the way of symphonic feeling in Lan’s approach. Instead what impressed was a clear-headed, intellectual approach to the way he argued the music, patiently building up layers of sound, emphasizing the dance-like rhythms and leading up to the whoops of pure joy in the first movement coda.

The famous Allegretto is not a dirge, and Lan knew this, but emphasized the first (already longer) note of the theme by sustaining it – a throwback to older schools of conducting. There was lovely, chamber music-like playing from the strings with Lan Shui seemingly improvising a little with the dynamics. Tight dynamic control in the quick fugato allowed each line to be heard clearly. The orchestra’s concentration here was second only to the audience’s, judging from the utter silence during the Allegretto, followed by a symphony of suppressed coughs after.

The Scherzo, taken just short of top speed, and slightly unusually repeating the Scherzo section before the first Trio statement, was notable for its humour and drama. Here, the SSO showed just how well-oiled a Beethoven machine it was – everything sounded effortlessly musical and brilliant. And if you closed your eyes, you would have sworn you were listening to an old European orchestra, instead of a 40-year young Asian ensemble.

But Beethoven’s Seventh, is, after all, a ‘finale’ symphony, and Lan Shui and the SSO brought the performance home with aplomb. Starting, C. Kleiber-style, at a breakneck speed right from the start, the finale bristled with energy, with edge-of-your-seat tension, but also with lots of lovely details in the more relaxed music. It was a brilliant, heart-pounding whirlwind of a performance, and the audience rewarded Lan Shui and the SSO with standing ovations all-round, whoops of approval and four curtain calls. A thoroughly thrilling performance, but one that begs the (as yet unanswered) question – forget Mahler –  will the new music director conduct Beethoven as well as Lan Shui?

And oh, Happy Birthday, SSO!

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