Concert Review: Sibelius Symphonies No. 2 and 4, The Philharmonic Orchestra, Singapore

Photos by Andrew Bi Photography

Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
Sibelius Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63
The Philharmonic Orchestra, Singapore
Lim Yau, conductor

Victoria Concert Hall
13 Oct 2019

Review by Leon Chia

The day before this concert, I had popped into the SSO musicians lounge in Victoria Concert Hall to drop off my bag before assuming duty that night for a (SSO) concert, and there I found a fellow administrative colleague, who plays for the TPO, diligently humming notes and counting time while following a violin 1 score. Peering closer, I was not surprised to recognise the part for Sibelius’s 4th. He too was here for work, but this additional “homework” was for TPO’s concert the next day.

What transpired thereafter was his telling me how hard The Philharmonic Orchestra had been working on the Sibelius Fourth, almost at the expense of the Second. He went on to describe this interesting point: the concentrated music of the Fourth simply requires you to play as the score indicates, such is the exactness by which Sibelius has constructed it. When some musicians try to veer from the score by spontaneously and instinctively anticipating notes or altering the pace, it goes awry. So profoundly precise is Sibelius’s organic logic that nothing more needs to be done besides what the score says. 

As the composer himself said in the 1940s, “I am pleased that I did it, for even today I cannot find a single note in it that I could remove, nor can I find anything to add. This gives me strength and satisfaction. The fourth symphony represents a very important and great part of me.”

And this exactness is what happened on Sunday evening. I was frankly surprised to hear such a compelling, tight and engaging rendition of the Fourth, Sibelius’s most austere, most audience-unfriendly symphony. 

Singapore has one and only one true Sibelian conductor, Lim Yau. It is a testament to his deep and personal appreciation of Sibelius’s music that he has now done half of a second cycle of Sibelius’s 7 symphonies – and with an amateur orchestra at that. This orchestra, The Philharmonic Orchestra is the first orchestra in Singapore to have purposely done a complete Sibelius cycle, back in 2007. Not even the Singapore Symphony can claim this. 

Lim Yau, photo credit: Andrew Bi Photography

No one in his “right” mind would do this. But Maestro Lim is better, I would say, as totally biased that I am, that he is enlightened. He tells me, in essence, he is not afraid of empty seats in the hall. There are times when we play for a full hall, there are times when we play for something more profound. There’s hardly any other way to explain why an amateur orchestra would programme a Sibelius cycle. It’s not unlike how no less than Herbert von Karajan regularly programmed and recorded Sibelius throughout his legendary tenure at the Berlin Philharmonic, in a time and place where Sibelius was not popular. Such a marketer-terrifying choice can only come from a deep conviction in Sibelius’s music. 

But back to reality. The Fourth is often paired with something to make the crowd forgive us hermit-like, philosophical Sibelians, and TPO’s choice of the Second certainly earned much applause and appreciation, even though it was the technically inferior performance. TPO played the Fourth very well and I think they should be very proud of that – working hard on the less-appreciated one to, I hope, help audiences understand it better. The strings should be singled out for their oneness of purpose and tone, each player committed to their notes, faithfully following Lim Yau’s sure direction. It’s easy to sound a little lost in this symphonic essay on the tritone, which is unstable and unresolving by its nature, but I felt that TPO made its point with surety. 

Of the Second Symphony, actually, it was really very sure of foot until where it usually falters, the magnificent finale. There is no point mincing words here: Sibelius’s “highly”-prominent score for the trumpets here can only mean one thing for those wielding this important role – hero or zero. I salute your bravery, and am sorry you guys couldn’t make it. Despite this, the final coda was delivered with measured power, something that I feel reflects in Lim Yau and TPO again, a mature understanding of Sibelius’s idiom, which encourages tempered power of expression, where many conductors choose to indulge in excessive wearing of hearts-on-sleeves and furious musical flag-waving.

Ms Leow Rui Qing, principal oboe – Photo by Andrew Bi Photography

Much praise and admiration for TPO’s principal oboe, Ms Leow Rui Qing, whom I unhesitatingly call the MVP of the evening. Absolutely wonderful playing from start to finish. And last but not least, the comprehensive and well thought-out programme notes by Lum Jian Yang, with many helpful examples from the score.

To the 80, 90+ of you on stage who have played, so far, four symphonies of Sibelius this year, congratulations for the results of this journey so far. Going by the performances, it’s clear that TPO has more than a fair bit of expertise in showcasing Sibelius as master orchestrator, composer and symphonist. Looking forward to the last instalment.

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