Concert Review: Litton and SSO Save the Day with Class | The Flying Inkpot
KABALEVSKY Overture to Colas Breugnon, Op. 24
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 4 in C major, Op. 112
Khatia Buniatishvili, piano
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Andrew Litton, conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
14 April 2022
by Derek Lim
The SSO seems to have pulled out all the stops in an effort to welcome audiences back to the concert hall in a lineup packed with the ‘greatest hits’ that would not be out of place in a concert season from the 90s – and who can blame them for wanting to fill up every last seat?
Tonight’s programme hedged those bets a little by lining up an old audience-pleaser, Tchaikovsky‘s first Piano Concerto with Georgian-French pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, set against Ukrainian/Russian composer Prokofiev’s less popular Fourth Symphony in the second half after opening with a sparkling Kabalevsky ‘Cola Breugnon’ Overture.
The final tally? SSO and Andrew Litton 10: Buniatishvili 0.
Tasteless, unmusical and generally a disgrace, Buniatishvilli’s self-aggrandizing performance skirted the boundaries of decency, peered across into the shimmering depths of cynicism and then dove right in, sequinned fire engine red dress and all.
The musical one-upmanship started right from the get-go, with the pianist coming in at a much faster tempo than the orchestra had set. Not terribly unusual, except that this continued endlessly – ever faster, ever louder – for the rest of the movement.
The performance was so vulgar it felt like a parody. What at first seemed original, even exciting, quickly turned nauseating as she drove the music to speeds that even she could not play – beginning with the pizzicato passages immediately preceding the return of the big never-to-be heard again theme. Fundamentally lacking was a basic tempo – hers kept shifting without the benefit of a strong pulse to underpin it.
To Litton and the SSO’s great credit, they made the music return to what it should have sounded like in their great tuttis and, though they clearly could have, never continued that musical one-upmanship but tried their best to keep up – a fool’s errand at the tempi she whimsically chose.
Some repose came in the form of Evgueni Brokmiller’s lovely flute solo in the second movement, and Ng Pei-Sian’s eloquent cello solo in the same – which she selfishly sounded like she wanted to not accompany, but drown out. The central Prestissimo section was musical gibberish, continuing into the last movement, which would have been comical, were it not so offensively unmusical and overdriven.
Just to be clear, I have no issues with fast performances. Horowitz’s famous War Bonds concert from 1943 with Toscanini, for example, is driven but still musical and there is respect for the flow and feel of the music, and a give-and-take that you expect between pianist and orchestra in a concerto.
Make no mistake: tonight’s performance was all about her – an impression that remained as the enraptured crowd surreally cheered her into three encores.
Real musical substance was what Andrew Litton dealt out in spades in the Prokofiev – a supremely well-prepared outing of this somewhat of a symphonic dark horse, though it shouldn’t be, with its lovely melodies and classic mordant wit.
Litton was a paragon of studied improvisation at the podium, leading it unerringly and balancing everything masterfully, with every section playing at their virtuosic best. It’s hard to single any single section for praise, but the brass and percussion were just golden.
No missteps here – he always kept the momentum going and the SSO followed him to the hilt – most apparent in the first and last movements but also in the lyrical second movement, where there was a real bloom in the upper registers of the violins (those lovely glissandi!), and equally characterful unison violas and cellos a little while later. The Finale fairly threatened to bubble over with disciplined excitement until that ambiguously triumphant coda, which the audience rewarded with hoots of approval and much applause.
It was a wonderful celebration of this technically challenging music that had enough fun, good humour and a swagger in its step to wash away any residual bad taste in the mouth – a perfect palate cleanser.