Concert Review: Bruch Violin Concerto and Mahler 5 – Chloe Chua, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Renes | The Flying Inkpot
BRUCH Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26
MAHLER Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor
Chloe Chua, violin
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lawrence Renes, conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday, 2 March 2023
Review by Derek Lim
As we move decisively out of the weariness of the past few years, larger-scale orchestral pieces such as Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, played tonight, are making their return to the concert hall with a vengeance and I looked forward to tonight’s outing with much anticipation.
But before that, SSO’s Artist-in-Residence Chloe Chua (right) was the featured soloist in Max Bruch’s G-minor Violin Concerto. At sixteen years of age, Chloe is already a seasoned performer, with a rock-solid technique that any aspiring violinist would die for, and her first prize in the junior division of the Yehudi Menuhin competition in 2018 puts her at the forefront of Singapore’s violinist talent.
With Dutch-Maltese guest conductor Lawrence Renes accompanying, Chloe delivered a poised, musically straightforward performance of the lovely Bruch concerto. Technically accomplished and low on Germanic rhetoric, she tended to let the conductor take the lead rather than strike it out on her own.
Never flashy, she impressed the appreciative audience with the rich sound she drew from her Guadagnini, as well as her impeccable intonation, faultless shifts and nimble bowing. There were glimpses of future greatness with fire and passion in some passages of the first and last movements and rapt lyrical playing, especially in the slower central section of the Adagio. She already has the technical virtuosity; with time and experience, she will surely develop her own voice, live in the piece and make it her own.
Over his many years with the SSO, Lan Shui showed us how well Mahler should be played – the orchestra’s outings with this were some of their most memorable. Unfortunately, this outing with Renes showed us just how much we may have taken that for granted. Grasping neither the larger structure of this huge work nor its nuances, Renes’ direction showed little affinity for the symphony, making this reviewer puzzled as to why he was invited to conduct it.
Form and structure are everything in Mahler. The Fifth Symphony is a darkness-to-light symphony cast in three parts – a dark, plaintive, violent first part with the opening funeral march movement interrupted by a vehement, stormy second movement which ends in despair. The second part is a complex neurotic Scherzo which partially fights and resolves the psychological darkness of the first part, followed by the third part, which moves the music further into the light and ends with triumph and unbridled optimism.
Each part is important and needs to be in balance with and contrast against the others. If the listener is not convinced of the darkness in the first part with an appropriately tragic tone, the Finale will not feel hard-won – precisely what happened here.
Following a promising introduction well-played by Associate Principal trumpet David Smith (filling in for Principal Jon Paul Dante who was indisposed, we hear), the SSO seemed at sea in the first two movements. Largely left to the orchestra’s own devices, the funeral march felt detached and episodic. Passages after passages were left unmoulded, without any attention to Mahler’s unique sound world – that we have previously heard from the SSO – or his numerous detailed directions in the score. Without clear direction, ensemble suffered and entries were messy – the lower strings, usually so confident and assertive, were curiously subdued in their long soliloquy in the second movement. Even the usually characterful winds were lacking in colour in the ghostly episode.
Absent too was the crunch of commitment of bows digging into strings that we’ve come to expect from any SSO performance of Mahler – everything felt smoothed over, sanitised and tentative, despite pockets of very good playing, mainly from the brass and percussion. If Renes intended to lighten the weight of the first movement in favour of the second, it did not work here as the second movement too lacked the requisite gravitas, spit and venom. Indifferent and lightweight too, was the chorale which pre-figures that of the Finale.
Things fared better after, with excellent guest horn Principal Esa Tapani (right) tackling the Scherzo’s demanding concertante horn part with colourful virtuosity, supported by the SSO horn section in brilliant form. Recovering from a messy and unstable fugato episode which threatened to fall apart, the orchestra found a nice lilt elsewhere in the earthy Ländler music. There was a little more colour from the orchestra, especially from the strings, which were increasingly confident here. But Renes seemed embarrassed with the music’s emotion, shying away from its melancholic lyricism.
The famous strings-and-harp-only Adagietto is fairly indestructible. Here, the strings played expressively and the performance was beautiful – though in a generically non-neurotic kind of way where greater performers have found a yearning desperation.
The Rondo-Finale was arguably the best-played movement, with more committed, confident playing here from the orchestra than anywhere else in this symphony. More comfortable in the lighter, airier music, Renes’ approach was again lightweight, shying away from Mahler’s more forceful gestures. With a re-found confidence and presence sorely missed in the first two movements, the lower strings were back in full force in the movement’s fugato episodes and the orchestra seemed to finally be enjoying themselves here, leading up to the speedily-despatched chorale. But without the appropriate weight of tragedy in the first part, the victory felt facile and not hard-won – surely not something one wants to feel in this, perhaps the ultimate darkness-to-light symphony.