Concert Review: Familiar Favourites: Pictures at an Exhibition (Singapore Symphony Orchestra), 20 July 2018

Familiar Favourites: Pictures at an Exhibition

BALAKIREV           Islamey (orch. Lyapunov)
MUSSORGSKY       Night on Bald Mountain (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov)
BORODIN              Polovtsian Dances and Chorus from Prince Igor
MUSSORGSKY       Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui, conductor
Singapore Symphony Chorus
Eudenice Palaruan, choral director
Singapore Symphony Youth Choir
Singapore Symphony Children’s Choir
Wong Lai Foon, choirmaster

20 July 2018, Esplanade Concert Hall

Review by J.G. Wong

This Familiar Favourites concert featured entirely Russian fare and was duly attended by a sprinkling of Russians and, for some reason, half the population of Nanyang Girls’ High. As all pieces played tonight were clearly programmatic, Lan Shui (right) faced the additional challenge of balancing textual fidelity against the vivid imagery suggested by the pieces’ titles, especially ‘Pictures’, which on its own cast the orchestra’s strengths and limitations into sharp relief.

Tonight’s programme began with Balakirev’s Islamey, orchestrated by his contemporary, Lyapunov, from the notorious and technically harrowing solo piano original. The imbalance between the brass and strings was evident from the outset: the toccata-like first theme was played muscularly, and with clear, machine gun-punctuation by the brass, but mushily by the strings. Later passages were impressively full-blooded with the backing of the brass section but muffled without, the orchestra sounding as evenly proportioned as a jacked weightlifter who skips leg day. It was a relief that this was somewhat made up for by a refreshing variety of timbres. Brawny interjections by the brass, set against lithe, whirling-dervish woodwind lines, highlighted inner voices and produced additional nuances not found in the piano original.

While the strings were more incisive in Mussorgsky’s (left) Night on Bald Mountain, brass and percussion were still heavily relied upon to underscore points. Bald Mountain seemed to wheeze into being, and began in foreboding fits and starts (“subterranean sounds”), a chilling effect which could have been further brought out with greater contrasts in volume. Timpani and trombones were full-bodied and remarkably menacing (“Glorification of Satan and celebration of the Black Mass”). However, the final third of the piece was disappointingly numb, and lacked direction. As lines began to drift apart, this sounded less “Daybreak” than a lugubrious wake.

Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances and Chorus from Prince Igor, a fairly Dionysian piece which pitted lyrical themes against churlish rants on the Glory of Khan Konchak, with a background of exotic instrumentation, was here performed in its rarely-heard choral version, robustly sung by the technically astounding chorus, with extraordinary contributions from the trombones. Less convincing was the slightly hurried pacing, which robbed the music of some its lyricism – the slaves sounded as though they were pining for humdrum nine-to-five jobs rather than for a land where ‘splendid roses blossom in the valleys, and nightingales sing in the green forests’.

The second half consisted entirely of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the usual Ravel orchestration – a solid performance, though not quite in the same league as one Shui himself gave a couple of years ago.

The opening Promenade theme was confidently sounded by round, stentorian brasses, which were finally matched by the strings, at last back in their romantic element. The Old Castle was a piece to which Lan Shui’s conducting was particularly well-suited – the strings wafted and drifted winningly under his tight control, and conjured up the image of a far-off, ancient castle looming in and out of view through heavy fog.

Certain pieces were cohesively played but controlled too tightly, and consequently ended up sounding rather mechanical, though better sonic balance was evident here. Lighter movements – the Gnome, Tuileries, Limoges – thus failed to even out the weight of graver ones, and appeared to be little more than transitional ‘filler’ pieces.

The percussion and brasses were at their most vigorous propelling Baba Yaga, a fearsome witch who stomps through the Russian forest in a hut on chicken legs, but even so remained under too strict a meter, coming across more like a genial grandma who switches her (mortar-and-pestle) gears smoothly, faithfully checks all blind spots, and absolutely never, ever mounts a cedar tree. Likewise, the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks lacked that bit of whimsy and grotesquerie – the chicks are alive but not kicking, I’m afraid.

In Cum Mortis in Lingua Mortua the promenade theme re-appears, diminished and plaintive, a neat parallel between Mussorgsky strolling through the exhibition and Hartmann stumbling about in the Parisian catacombs. This could have acted as the emotional core of the piece, especially considering the context of Mussorgsky’s guilt and depression over the death of Hartmann. The strings hung octaves above, bleak and unmoving, staring down with the icy gaze of skulls and mandibles perched on unreachably high corners of an ossuary. It was a pity that woodwind lines remained unshaped and formless, and Cum Mortuis consequently lacked musical direction, and with it, any sense of poignance.

The Great Gate at Kiev concluded the concert and was the best-played by a country mile. Shui pulled off exactly what was required: a firm tempo and a beefy sound, a percussion ensemble triumphantly pealing the return of the Promenade theme, and a massive, overpowering coda that was immensely spectacular yet not overblown (save some histrionics towards the end). Once again, the brasses performed steadfastly well – and trombones, molodtsi!

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