Concert Review: Lim Yau conducts Brahms Symphonies No. 2 and 3, The Philharmonic Orchestra, Singapore

TPCJohannes Brahms

Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73

SOTA Concert Hall

11 Oct 2013, Friday

The Philharmonic Orchestra, Singapore

Lim Yau, conductor

Review by Derek Lim

Watching two Brahms symphonies in  a single concert could be the aural equivalent of downing a prime steak followed by a pound of foie gras – each taken on its own is good for you, and you should be enjoying it, but both in quick succession just might give a case of indigestion, which is sometimes how this evening felt like.

Still, there was much to enjoy. We heard the third and second symphonies tonight, in that order. Lim Yau’s take on both was more Classical than Romantic, taking fairly conventional tempi short on rhetoric and high on efficiency, with no particularly special insights. The TPO’s small size (56 on stage tonight) meant that there was slightly greater textural clarity but I felt the string section could have been larger, as individual members of the upper strings could be heard. Pitching issues in one or two first violinists marred the otherwise excellent playing from everyone else, notably the brass and winds.

Some conductors treat the first movement of the  third heroically (it’s marked Allegro con brio, as are Beethoven’s Eroica and 5th symphony), but this felt more earthbound than striving for heroic heights. Despite occasional ensemble lapses and untidy work, the orchestra made it through in one piece through the first movement.

The second movement, Andante, showed off some lovely wind playing, especially in the oboe solo, felicitously played by principal Tay Kai Tze. The balance favoured the winds, which sometimes overshadowed the strings. The interpretation was leisurely, even working up to the turbulent middle episode. The resigned beauty of the final bars was caught perfectly.


Brahms at his piano

The third movement, Poco allegretto, is my favourite and here Lim took a slightly more deliberate tempo – perhaps to accommodate the cellos in their higher registers. For me, this interpretation was more superficially placid, lacking that surge of emotion and directness of delivery in the strings especially before the horn entrance. The hornist, Alexander Ian Oon, was excellent, though a little more freedom would have gone a long way. I prefer my Brahms a little more heart-on-sleeve and would have preferred more emotional involvement, especially in the strings, which extends to the fourth movement, marked just ‘Allegro’ by Brahms.

For me this brings back the drama into the symphony and reflects the psychological turmoil of the inner movements, but reflected in action. It ultimately ends in resignation, but not before going through an optimistic surge in energy. Perhaps because of fatigue by this point, despite a promising start, Lim’s podium animation failed to translate to tension in the development. This detracted from the contrast between the violence of what came before and the understanding of the eventual resignation and closure in this symphony.

The second symphony came after the 20 minute interval. Here I think the difficulties are balancing out the symphony and reconciling the second movement with the general sunniness of the rest. The great lengths of the first movement need a firm hand to navigate; here it felt episodic, with more focus on non troppo than Allegro, adding to its longueurs. The phrasing on ‘lullaby’ theme felt clipped, instead of sung (it is marked cantando), like a crotchet, rest and then two quavers instead of the minim – two quavers that the score notates and this proved a constant distraction, since this theme is repeated many times throughout the course of the movement. Lim used an overall brighter tone for the brass here than in the third symphony, here augmented with a tuba. There was some lovely flute playing, but perhaps since they are constantly playing, some fatigue had set in the strings later in the movement, which felt enervated.

Dark, chocolatey lower strings were heard in the second movement Adagio non troppo, which also featured a very musically-played horn solo by Benedict Chua. Lim emphasised here its more serious elements, which taken on its own is scarcely less tragic than anything from Brahms’ fourth symphony. I felt that by spending more time on the first and second movements, he had shifted its weight onto its more serious elements rather than its more cheerful second half.

But cheerful it was. The third movement, friendly and festively played, with Veda Lin on the oboe, had the Gemütlichkeit and breeziness absent from the the first two (and not a little gypsy); by the middle of the fourth movement, energy had suddenly returned with a thrust in the music that had been lacking earlier. I think Lim Yau could have paced this movement better, and fatigue was again an issue, but by its conclusion, a glorious blaze of brass – brilliantly played! – that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bruckner symphony, there was palpable joy and triumph in the air.

Did it feel like a hard-won victory, in the big picture? Hard to say, but it was a fitting end to an evening of great music, and with its completion of yet another symphony cycle, another great achievement for this mostly-amateur orchestra.

Read Chay Choong’s review of the first and fourth symphonies

and of all four.

Erratum: The first published version of this review contained mistakes with regard to the horn and oboe soloists. This has been rectified. Thank you, Tay Kai Tze, for your lovely solo and gentle correction! (as of 11am, 13 Oct 2013)

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