Review: Beethoven 1806, He Ziyu, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Hans Graf | The Flying Inkpot
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60
BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
He Ziyu, violin
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Hans Graf, conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
21 Jan 2022
Review by Derek Lim
It may be two years too late, but this all-Beethoven programme – one piece an underrated Cinderella, the other a well-loved audience favourite – was a great way for the SSO to catch up with the festivities.
Lovingly prepared and meticulously graduated and shaded, Hans Graf’s reading of the Fourth Symphony had everything you could ask for in a performance of this symphony. Guiding the orchestra through the work with a steady hand – he seems to favour a single tempo throughout a movement with not too much variation – he paid great attention to Beethoven’s dynamic markings and accents, but his experience meant that this came through very naturally and never felt exaggerated. The long Adagio introduction can be played ‘straight’, but here it felt organically grown and inexorably developed – full of drama, with the fortissimo chords before the Allegro vivace sounding like thunderclaps. Elsewhere, it was the little touches that made their mark, handled with great finesse and elegance, though never fussy.
Graf has a knack of highlighting just how inventive Beethoven was, and the Adagio second movement, with its obsessive dotted note rising fourths was full of opportunities for this, with powerful yet never ragged climaxes. The cadenza-like passage toward the movement’s end, with the melody passed from horn to clarinet to flute, was particularly admirably managed, as was the energetic Scherzo.
But it was the moto perpetuo last movement, bristling with energy and Beethovenian vim, that was most satisfying. With tongue in cheek, Graf brought out Beethoven’s unbuttoned side and led the very tight ensemble in a rollicking, playful performance. I’ve always thought that the repetitive minor chords here sounded rather like the insistent door knocking in Act I of Fidelio, and these had all the mock rage you could ask for. The final notes brought cheers and whoops of approval from the audience – a rarity in this symphony.
Also satisfying was the performance of the violin concerto that followed, though not before Hans Graf appeared alone on stage to give a charming eight-minute introduction to the work that had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand.
With broad, old-fashioned (in a good way) Romantic tempi, Graf painted with broad symphonic strokes and a softer grain here, laying out an almost architectural, monolithic framework for his soloist, Chinese violinist He Ziyu.
With 50 years separating them, the two bridged the gap in a well-behaved performance that however could have used more contrast and urgency from both soloist and orchestra. With a reliable technique and near-perfect intonation, He has the technical measure of the work, with the opening broken octaves (and all the rest of the arpeggios and scales that Beethoven makes his violinist play) perfectly played on his silvery, bell-like 1853 Rocca violin.
What could have given his performance greater depth might have been a more assertive treatment of the solo part, more risk-taking and freedom of interpretation – it felt sometimes almost too self-effacing and gentle – as well as better treatment of silence and dramatic rests.
If there is room for his interpretation to grow, there was already much to enjoy, including that very moving passage after the well-played cadenza (the standard first movement Kreisler) where the violin states the theme, accompanied by pizzicati from the orchestra, which was shimmeringly beautifully and simply stated.
As if unburdened by the structure and formality of the first movement, He’s Larghetto was nearly more chirpy and cheerful than prayerful – a welcome difference from the usual – employing a brilliant flying staccato upbow for the four notes of the theme where others traditionally go for something more restrained. His playing, hitherto perhaps a bit too ‘straight’ and clean, gained some character when midway he allowed himself an expressive downward glissando.
The Finale was similarly rather well-behaved, without much of the foot-stamping of the dance. But in the cadenza (also Kreisler), there was once again a glimpse of future greatness when He let his hair down and enjoyed himself, playing with a sense of joy to the final bars and ending a successful outing that the audience rewarded with four curtain calls.
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