Concert Review: Lan Shui’s Farewell – Singapore Symphony Orchestra – Mahler Symphony No. 2 |26 Jan 2019

All photo credits – Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Mahler Symphony No. 2 in c minor

Miah Persson (soprano)
Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano)
Singapore Symphony Chorus & Youth Choir
Hallelujah Chorus
Singapore Bible College Community Choir. Canticorum
The Choir of the Transylvania State Philharmonic
The Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Singapore
Eudenice Palaruan (choral director)
Wong Lai Foon (choirmaster)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Lan Shui, conductor

Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday, 26 January 2019

Review by Derek Lim

Everybody remembers their first time. I remember the first time I heard Lan Shui conduct Mahler with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra like it was yesterday. It was 1997, he had just become Music Director, and he conducted the Fifth at the Victoria Concert Hall. I was seated at the nose-bleed seats in Circle, looking down at the orchestra all crammed on stage. I was in awe at his control of the orchestra, how he managed to exhort the musicians to play through the end of the long symphony with so much raw emotion and energy. Then Mahler 1 followed, and it was clear that he knew how the composer ‘went’.

A young and ‘emo’ music-lover who thought nothing of listening to Mahler twice a day, I was delighted that our national orchestra’s Mahler performances were of such a high standard and I looked forward to each one. I’ve wept (and cheered) at more of Lan Shui’s SSO Mahler concerts than I care to admit. Only his Mahler 2, back in 2003, didn’t move me as the rest of his interpretations.

So when the SSO announced that Lan Shui was programming Mahler’s 2nd symphony as his last two performances with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra as music director, I had high hopes. Would he outdo himself with one last hurrah?

In short, no. Tonight’s performance was a pale reflection of what we know possible from Lan and the SSO. So safely interpreted, with so much unrealised and yet marred by so many mistakes, it was an unworthy send-off for the man who had devoted 22 years of his life to the orchestra as its music director.

The Allegro maestoso started off tentatively, with the funereal introduction stated at a fast-ish tempo. The first hints that not all would be alright showed up right away, with a surprisingly indifferently played first theme on the oboe with little attempt at phrasing.

Mahler’s exposition is short, but contains all the seeds of what is to come – you can usually tell what a conductor’s vision of the symphony is by its end. Tonight, at the end of the first theme, the full orchestral tutti with its hammered-in brass chords was underpowered, unheroic – a harbinger of things to come. Lan Shui moulded the stratospheric second theme with lots of rubato, more dreamy than yearning – not in itself a problem, but he was unable to summon up the momentum to bring out the music’s pain and fury when it turns from major to minor.

The modified exposition repeat brought more confidence in execution and a particularly beautifully played second theme this time around. But the development was again uncommitted, with missed entries (a particularly glaringly absent oboe answer to the flute’s statement before the Dies Irae section), and generally undisciplined rendering of rhythms and dynamics, with little orchestral colour.

There were moments, to be sure – the collapse at the climax was particularly effective, and an extended caesura between the orchestral cries was an inspired touch. But these were mostly overshadowed by the impression that the musicians were feeling their way through the music, and that perhaps Lan Shui hadn’t ‘lived in’ this symphony as he had with the other Mahler symphonies. And so it continued, with passage after passage unfurling without his classic insights and sensitivity. By the time the coda comes along, the listener should be left emotionally shattered. I was left cold.

The second movement, Andante moderato, followed after a short break to allow the singers to come onstage. Taken briskly, this was the single best-played movement, with some real warmth in the Ländler, though there was something resolutely unsentimental about Lan Shui’s take on it, and few smiles even in the central pizzicato passage.

The Scherzo started off strong, with timpani beats silencing an unready audience, bringing some lovely work on the clarinets, and later the flutes and piccolos – finally some colour! But the quick tempo exposed ensemble issues and didn’t allow accents on the strings to be brought out. Mahler’s droll humour fell through like a joke with a mistimed punchline. Minor issues, unfortunately, compared to the pseudo-academic counterpoint passage between the higher and lower strings before the fanfare, where things threatened to fall apart amidst two different tempos. The fanfare itself was timidly played, and the beautiful, idyllic, trumpet quartet passage later had serious balance issues that prevented the melody from being heard clearly. The cry of disgust came and went without much impact whatsoever.

Anna Larsson

In Swedish mezzo-soprano Anna Larsson (left), the fourth movement, ‘Urlicht’ (Primal Light) found a sympathetic interpreter. Her velvety ‘O Röschen rot!’ was intoned like the echo of a distant memory and was the other high point of the evening – only to be spoilt by the brass cracking the ensuing chorale. Her vast experience with the music showed and even if her interpretation was more introvert than emotional – ‘Ich bin von Gott, und will wieder zu Gott’ in particular sounded less of a determined statement than a suggestion – it was a lovely performance.

Which brings us to the Finale – the culmination of everything that came before, it is also the longest. Lan Shui focussed on the long line here, with a clear overarching view of the movement, and he kept the action moving nicely, keeping it from feeling episodic in the way some interpretations can.

A pity then, about the numerous mistakes, mostly in the brass both on and off-stage that made it impossible to settle in and enjoy this music. When the gates of heaven finally open, flubbed horns and trumpets are not what you expect to hear! It was hardly cosmic and definitely not awe-inspiring.

Elsewhere, passage after untidy passage streamed by – an off-stage band playing at a different tempo from the bassoons on-stage, an optional flute doubling of the soprano entry far too loud and ruining it, the trumpet fumbling on his doubling of the mezzo-soprano line, slowing at the second half of the phrase and nearly throwing her off – all acceptable for another orchestra perhaps, but not one which has Mahler in its blood like the SSO.

All wasn’t lost though. The major episodes made their mark – the march of the dead after the cataclysmic opening of the ground was appropriately energetic, and the low brass chorale intoning the Dies irae theme was rock-solid, as solemn as you could hope for.

But it was the choir who saved the day. Sounding resplendently supported even in the pianissimo entry, their intonation of ‘Aufersteh’n’ provided the first real frisson of the evening. Supremely well-prepared, they were an absolute pleasure to listen to at every point. The male choir’s ‘Bereite dich!’ (prepare yourself), was like a stentorian command from the heavens themselves. Even better, they inspired the orchestra to ride on the wings ‘that they had won for themselves’, and Mahler’s music finally took flight – the final passages were a torrent of orchestral, organ and choral colour that was unstoppable and all-consuming, burning with a passion and inspiration that one had missed for most of the long evening.

Greatest hits – seven times the SSO and Lan Shui rocked our world in Mahler

1. The Fifth – first performance (Dec 5, 1997)

Who could forget that youthful (and not very tall) conductor leading the SSO on that crowded VCH stage? Trumpeter Gary Peterson played the opening solo, and when the chords came crashing in, we were hooked. Utter vehemence in the second movement, indeed, and could you feel the love tonight in the Adagietto?

2. The Third – (Jan 26, 2008)
Lan Shui always looked like a general on the podium leading his players to war – you feared he would wear himself in the first movement after the crazy march. Yet it was the last, slow movement that would prove his Mahlerian chops, and leave not a dry eye in the audience.

3. The Ninth (Dec 10, 1999)
War again, but against death – a classic Lan warhorse which we unfortunately only got to hear once. The third movement Rondo-Burleske felt like he was escaping from the devil himself, with dangerously daring tempi, but the first distinguished with its humanity.

4. The Eighth (May 29 and 30, 2004)
Who could ever forget this mammoth performance? Remarkable in every aspect, he had its complete grasp, from the opening ‘Veni’ to the last chords. More importantly, it got this reviewer out a Mahler rut.

5. The Sixth (July 16, 2010)
Wonderfully played in every movement (Scherzo-Andante, by the way), but again most remarkable in the last movement, with unflagging energy, commitment, guts and fire.

6. The Fifth (again, 2018)
Absolutely the best performance I’ve ever heard. The full package, bar none. Stupendous, with an especially polished SSO and an amazing Han Chang Chou on the solo horn in the Scherzo.

7. The Seventh (26 Nov, 2004)
From the music of the night to the sunlight of the last movement, he made this Cinderella of a Mahler symphony into his very own and erased all doubts of its greatness.

Thank you, Lan Shui!

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