OMM provide unexpected pleasure with Chopin and Schubert

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Frederic Chopin – Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 (arranged for Piano and String Orchestra by Kenner and Dombek)
Franz Schubert – String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden” (arranged for String Orchestra)


Albert Tiu, piano
Orchestra of the Music Makers
Chan Tze Law, conductor

22 AUG 2021, 3.30PM
Esplanade Concert Hall

Review by Derek LIM

This matinee outing by Orchestra of the Music Makers was an unalloyed, unexpected pleasure. The OMM has been far more associated with colourful, late Romantic, full orchestra works (think Mahler, Strauss, John Williams even) than the composers whose works were on offer today. In fact, a quick check with their archives confirms that this was the first time they’ve played a full work by either composer.

Add to this inexperience the fact that they had to do a quick programme pivot in the concerto because their original soloist was stuck overseas and that his replacement, Albert Tiu, had only 20 days to prepare his part and you’d forgive this writer for tempering his expectations.

Albert Tiu

As it turned out, no such tempering was required. Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2, here presented in a strings-only arrangement by Kenner and Dombek, began decisively, with Chan Tze Law leading the 15 violins, 7 violas, 6 cellos and 1 double bass on stage through a no-nonsense orchestral introduction. The Esplanade Concert Hall’s acoustics may have lent a soft-edged quality to the attack, but the lovely string sound more than made up for it. There was a level of discipline that I have not heard from them in recent memory, while being fully capable of producing passages of hushed beauty.

Tiu’s approach in the first movement was gentlemanly, perhaps a little reticent, but always musical. Fully at home with the more declamatory passages as well as with Chopin’s glittery filigree, his approach emphasized poetry over virtuosity, though he was fully up to the part’s significant technical demands. The second movement Larghetto allowed his poetic playing to shine. Taking a slightly slower tempo, his phrasing was songful, operatic even – his beautiful, liquid tone and lovely rubato singing phrase after phrase without ever dipping into excess, while always maintaining a steely strength even in the beauty, especially in the central passage underlined by tremolo strings, while the cello solo was beautifully played. The Allegro vivace final movement was cogently argued with effective interplay between piano and orchestra and Tiu negotiating the final passages commandingly while still maintaining the dance. As with elsewhere in the concerto, it was only in the fullest tuttis that the fire of the winds, brass and timpani was missed.
As an encore, Tiu and the OMM played the tail end of the second movement, after revealing that the orchestra had only received their scores a week ago – the repeat was if anything even more relaxed than before.

A Mid-Concert Kerfuffle

In between pieces, an audience member was seen (and heard, ringingly) giving the usher considerable grief and calling her names after she politely asked him to move back to his original seat, four seats away. While SMM rules are like religion – they don’t always make sense and may seem arbitrary, the Esplanade usher is but the enforcer and executor of such rules and it is this observer’s opinion that said audience member should obey the rules (announced before the concert *and* published in the OMM’s programme notes so you can’t say you didn’t know) and get on with the programme – it’s been some months since they have been in force. And children, being rude and calling people names is never okay!

If the Chopin was all smooth, rounded edges, Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ was anything but. Symphonic statement or chamber piece? This performance made a strong case for both, which we heard in what was mostly Gustav Mahler’s arrangement. 

Muscularly played and laser-focussed, with an almost European burnish to the strings, this was the OMM as you’ve rarely heard them, with lots of chamber interplay between the sections, led by their principals, who often had solo passages, pulled out from the string ensemble texture – concertmaster Zhao Tian’s were particularly winning and always a joy to listen to.

Chan clearly delineated the larger sonata form of the first movement, maintaining focus on the musical argument while encouraging much colour in the strings – as a violinist himself, he found shade and light in the writing that added to the experience of the full string orchestra. 

It wasn’t all unremitting tension, though there was plenty of that to go around in the first movement. Rather, what impressed was how adroitly the many changes in mood were negotiated, like flashes of light in a night scene, bringing out moments of Schubertian grace amidst the more urgent passages. Focussed and concentrated too, were the second movement variations based on the theme from his song ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ – at first comforting (‘I am a friend, I am not wild’) but later terrifying (the galloping third variation – here breathlessly taken and chillingly menacing) before ending in the beautifully played prayerful chorale.

The defiant Scherzo, ferociously played with each return of the main theme, led into the skipping dotted rhythm Presto finale, taken at a breakneck speed that held no terrors for the terrific ensemble that managed to articulate well despite the speed. The recklessness and abandon of the tarantella – a dance once danced to get rid of the poison of a deadly spider’s bite – was matched with grit and determination to put the quartet’s earlier troubles behind. Here was a regular potboiler of a performance, with exposed nerve endings in the manic D-minor and intense drama and golden rays whenever the music transformed to the major key, which Chan rendered with a cathedral-like solemnity – even if the work does end eventually in tragedy.

The ‘Unfinished’, please, or the ‘Great’! There was so much to enjoy today that I can’t wait to hear the OMM play Schubert again – hopefully with a full orchestra next time!

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