Concert Review: The Trout Quintet | An Evening of Mahler and Schubert |6 March 2021 |The Flying Inkpot

MAHLER Piano Quartet in A minor
SCHUBERT Piano Quintet in A major, D.667 “Trout”

Andrew Litton (piano)
Chan Yoong-Han (violin)
Guan Qi (viola)
Ng Pei-Sian (cello)
Yang Zheng Yi (double bass)

Victoria Concert Hall
Sat / 06 Mar 2021 / 7:30PM

Review by Derek Lim

What strange times we live in. The arts scene across the world has been decimated by the pandemic, and in Singapore – as we take our first, small steps back into normalcy – it has only been in the last few months that our most august institutions have cautiously dared to perform live again, and in much reduced numbers.

A little more than a year ago, talk of commemorating Mahler’s 110th death anniversary by a major symphony orchestra would very realistically have included a handful of his symphonies and at least one of his song cycles, if not his only cantata. But the time for large symphonic works – the majority of his output – is not now, not in their original forms anyway. Tonight’s concert by members of the SSO and their principal guest conductor was a welcome opportunity to explore his piano quartet movement, written when he was just sixteen at the Vienna Conservatory.

Despite his young age and the lack of a defined musical voice, there is already an attractiveness in his writing and an originality – that cadenza-like violin passage toward the end, for example – that makes it an interesting artefact of Mahler’s youth. Written in A minor, the same key as his tragic Sixth Symphony, it sounds rather Brahmsian, though keen listeners may find that the first couple of bars of the main theme bear a passing resemblance to the central cello passage in the second movement of the Fifth Symphony.

Andrew Litton (piano), Chan Yoong-Han (violin), Guan Qi (viola) and Ng Pei-Sian (cello) made a meal of this piece, marked ‘Nicht zu schnell’ (Not too fast), with a broad, broodingly played first theme. As they searched for pathos, its languid passion didn’t quite give way to decisiveness (Entschlossen), but still there was plenty to enjoy, with Litton unafraid to indulge in a little Romantic effulgence – almost Rachmaninoffian in those crashing triplet octaves leading up to the dotted transitional passages making their way to the climax. Sonically there was much to savour in the rich collective tone of the string trio, and the performance found an almost symphonic scale in the 13-minute piece.

Yang Zheng Yi on double bass joined for the Schubert ‘Trout’ – a wonderfully alive performance that just about made up for the less-than-perfect ensemble work. Everyone acquitted themselves in this work that I’ve loved for so long, with something to engage interest in every department. Ng and Guan played their solos beautifully, while Chan’s felicitous filigree work in the higher exposed violin parts, especially in the Theme and Variations, was a joy to hear. Litton sparkled commandingly, with the pianistic hijinks of the third variation holding no terrors for him. Carefully considered yet seemingly spontaneous hairpins and rallentendos in the second movement were attractive touches, coming after the exquisite tragedy of the viola/cello passage, where Guan and Ng cut right to the heart of the music. The ‘Forelle’ chorale theme itself was musical balm, pensively played, as if to prolong the pleasure, with lovely, hushed playing from the strings. The Finale was boisterous and optimistic, with lovely attention to dynamics.

It was a great way to end a short but thoroughly engaging and well-programmed evening. Starting in A minor and ending in A major, it was like an assurance that everything will be alright. Count myself among the comforted.

PS: I count myself privileged to have secured a ticket for this concert, considering the really limited number available because of social distancing. I never thought that live music would be such a scarce commodity, but we need it now more than ever. Might audience members who are unable to turn up for the concert be able to give up their tickets or sell them away if they know they are unable to attend?

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