Review: Kam Ning leads SSO strings in Haydn and Bartók double-bill | The Flying Inkpot
HAYDN Violin Concerto No. 1 in C major
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Kam Ning, violin/leader
Victoria Concert Hall
27 October 2021
Review by Victor Gan
Victoria Concert Hall’s stage seemed somewhat bare for an orchestral concert with only a smattering of stands but no chairs: SSO’s string players were going to play standing, as was the practice during Haydn’s time at Esterházy and still is for some chamber ensembles today, such as Het Kamerorkest Brugge, which Kam Ning, soloist and leader here, was Artistic Director of from 2010 to 2017.
With four of each violin section and a single double bass, the makeup was similar to the early Esterházy ensemble at the time the First Violin Concerto in C (Hob VIIa:1) was written (c. 1765) for Luigi Tomassini. He was initially Prince Esterházy’s valet, then sent to Venice for musical training just before Haydn joined the court in 1761, and ending up as the Konzertmeister. Haydn, starting as Vice-Kapellmeister, usually led non-vocal works playing the violin himself at once or twice weekly instrumental concerts.
Here Kam Ning was both soloist and also took on the task of cajoling the string players and harpsichordist to join her vivacious enjoyment of the piece, communicating expressively with her bow, shoulders, and even taking foot-stamping turns to encourage her fellow players. With her dark sleeveless top and flowing slacks, Kam Ning’s athletic demeanour and quicksilver elegance fed a contrametric rubato against the initially more staid ensemble accompaniment.
She brought a viscerally engaging and charismatic presence to this concerto, probably the most interesting of Haydn’s extant violin concertos, but still otherwise generally relegated to student practice work.
I found her earnest approach particularly effective in the initial exposition and climactic conclusion of the last movement. Kam Ning’s rambunctious effervescence tended more to effortful earnestness than Austro-Hungarian Gemütlichkeit.
For the Bartók Divertimento, Kam Ning moved from centre-stage to lead from the first desk as concertmaster. The ensemble grew to just under the 22 players specified in the score, not to any noticeable detriment. This most classical of Bartók’s late works was composed to commission by Paul Sacher in just fifteen days with Bartók hospitably housed in Sacher’s Swiss mountain chalet. Not only formally and in name (neo)classical, at least in the outer movements, it clearly articulates the classical virtues of regularity and repetition, even as the thematic material uses folk-derived motifs so characteristic of Bartók.
The SSO string players relaxed into the richer harmonies and expressive dynamics in this second half, cohesively responding to each other in the concerto grosso-like alternation of ensemble textures. While all the solos by the concertino first desks confidently balanced the ripieno ensemble, Kam Ning’s playing stood out for its drama and verve in drawing out the thematic diversity and rhythmic contrasts in the opening movement.
The more chromatic Bartók of the sixth quartet, written about the same time, emerged in the middle movement, which the composer himself described as a key example of his third harmonic phase of composition, after bimodality and modal chromaticism, a “new Hungarian chromaticism,” in which “the single tones of these melodies are independent tones having no interrelation between each other. There is in each specimen, however, a decidedly fixed fundamental tone to which the other tones resolve in the end.” (“Harvard Lectures” in Béla Bartók: Essays, ed. Suchoff (1976), Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, p.381). Different approaches can be taken to using this chromaticism to express the musical discourse (see comments on recordings later); here I was left wondering if a more distinctive interpretation might have resulted with a conductor instead of a concertmaster.
It is hard not to connect the grim foreboding and harmonic ambiguity here with the Second World War and its imminent horrors at the time of composition in 1939. I find the coherence of the piece hinges on the larger-scale interpretive balance between the earthy confidence and hope of the outer movements and the turmoil of the middle Molto Adagio. I sensed there could be more turbid depths to be plunged, more complexity to be explored, even as Kam Ning jauntily led the SSO strings into the rousing conclusion of the recital.
There was one encore, Leroy Anderson’s “Plink, Plank, Plunk!” (1951) written in a matter of days, and used as a theme for the TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” we were told by Kam Ning. This entirely pizzicato bonbon certainly was a crowd-pleaser, prompting an even more vigorous round of applause by the unfortunately Covid-sparse audience.
Haydn Violin Concerto
Among recordings by violinists I generally enjoy, Isabelle Faust’s multiply reissued album (originally 1998) with the Munich Chamber Orchestra and Christopher Poppen, her teacher, afforded a more rhapsodically playful take, complementing her exquisitely sensitive agogic phrasing. The faster tempo she assumes in the first movement suits her evocation of effortlessness, while Simon Standage with Pinnock’s English Concert (1989) with a similarly quick tempo I found less expressive, possibly marred by the harsh early digital sound. On the other hand, Mikhail Vaiman’s Slavic intensity in a 1969 Melodiya recording with the Chamber Orchestra of the Leningrad State Philharmonic Society tends to a weightiness that risks overwhelming the classical sprightliness of this concerto, while drawing more out of the Adagio than most other violinists.
Syzmon Goldberg in his 1944 studio recording with Susskind and the Philharmonia sings in an achingly tender middle movement, much more memorable than his non-commercial recording with the Netherland Chamber Orchestra (1966), being just a little less strident, with finer control of vibrato and nuances of phrasing. As a master Mozartean, it is unsurprising this is the recording (along with Faust’s more idiosyncratic interpretation in vastly better sound) I will likely return to.
The one recording I wish I could listen to is Paul Sacher’s studio recording with Collegium Musicum Zürich in 1985, last on a 1989 Japanese Erato CD. Fricsay’s recordings with RIAS Symphony Orchestra (the live 1952 on Audite marginally more than the 1953 DGG studio version) plumb the morbid chromaticism of the central movement, while Silvestri in his 1958 recording for EMI with the Philharmonia chooses to imbue even the outer movements with a sombre melancholy, perhaps too much so, even if I prefer it to the slick cheeriness of more than a few recent recordings.
Sándor Végh’s live recording at the Marlboro Festival in 1974 manages to capture both the pivotal intensity central to the Divertimento’s arch and the brash vigour especially of the finale, even more than his other recordings, e.g. with Camerata Salzburg, and a video with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on YouTube.