Review: Schumann Piano Concerto and Mozart’s Jupiter – Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Hans Graf, Herbert Schuch | The Flying Inkpot
MOZART Symphony No. 33 in B-flat major, K.319
SCHUMANN Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
MOZART Symphony No. 41 in C major, K.551 “Jupiter”
Herbert Schuch, piano
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Hans Graf, Chief Conductor
Friday, 14 Jan 2022
Esplanade Concert Hall
Review by Derek Lim
It’s amazing that tonight marked the SSO premiere of Mozart’s 33rd symphony – a reflection of our national symphony orchestra’s relative youth but perhaps also of the strengths of the music directors who have taken its reins.
As an Austrian native, and having spent ten years as former music director for the Mozarteum Orchestra of Salzburg, it was perhaps expected that current Chief Conductor Hans Graf would bring some of his Mozart experience to the SSO.
Neither HIP (Historically Informed Performance) nor traditionally big-band, Graf’s Mozart lilted and danced, with punchy, luminous sound from the reduced-sized SSO in both the 33rd and 41st symphonies. No. 33 was nimbly and agilely negotiated in the first movement with loads of grace and bubbly effervescence. The Andante moderato – chamber music writ large – was performed with warmth and expression. The winds made their mark in the Minuet with lovely, clear playing and nice dynamic detail, led by Graf’s keen sense of rubato. This was followed by the exuberantly playful Allegro assai finale, where drama was the order of the day, with the strings’ nippy grace notes adding bite to the proceedings.
The Schumann Piano Concerto was rather more special, or wayward, depending on how your tastes lie. Romanian-born German pianist Herbert Schuch’s rather interventionist approach to the solo part of this repertoire staple was supported to the hilt by Hans Graf’s treatment of the orchestral part. Nearly anti-virtuosic, it felt in turns dreamy and Romantic, at times Chopin-esque even, embracing Eusebius (the moody introspective) to the exclusion of Florestan (passionate, exuberant, and sometimes impulsive) – aspects of his personality that Schumann named himself.
After the opening flourish, played more grandly than fierily, the first theme was lovingly stated with Schuch’s clear, pearly piano sound. While unmarked, most conductors speed up in the following orchestral passage; here, Graf took the tempo even more slowly, like a storyteller revealing a grand saga. In most of the first movement, the orchestra took a supportive role instead of an adversarial one. This was very effective in certain passages. For example, the dreamy passage in A-flat, where the orchestra plays the main theme while the soloist accompanies with rippling arpeggios, was beautiful and felt inexorably right, like a great river charting its course. However, there wasn’t enough contrast in the following Allegro, which felt sluggish and unresponsive. The rest of the movement was much the same – very moving in parts, but without the necessary contrast to keep the musical conversation active, and not even in the great cadenza did Schuch fly free.
The Intermezzo showed off Schuch’s very lovely touch, with pianist and conductor milking the music for what it’s worth, really leaning into the great cello tune with loads of rubato, played lovingly by the orchestra. Schuch was rather happy to fade into the background, accompanying the orchestra without much comment.
The last movement was again very lovingly played, like a warm musical embrace, but here, again, it felt too musically relaxed, with little tension between the piano and orchestra and the tempi kept very moderate. I have long loved the unbridled optimism that Schumann affords in the Finale, but this performance was almost too well-behaved – where was the pianistic fire? There is catharsis to be found in musical virtuosity and I just didn’t get it in this performance.
Schuch’s encore was Schubert’s G-flat major Impromptu – an expansive rendition that stretched phrases into oblivion and nearly threatened – with its bass trill notes – to turn into the composer’s D960.
The Jupiter that followed was the perfect antidote – with punchy, powerful sound in the opening chords and confident playing from all around. This was Classically cleansing, with the second movement flowingly played though not too fast, the minor key episodes furiously played yet not overwrought, and each episode more turbulent than the last. Graf brought more of his elegant phrasing and graceful dance to the Minuet, with a lovely give-and-take of a seasoned Mozartian. The finale (Molto allegro) bristled with energy, with the orchestra making a much larger sound than one would have expected of its reduced numbers. Friendly and optimistic, it wasn’t the last word in tension but was instead full of counterpoint-driven beauty and light, reaching heavenly heights cheerfully and easily.