The first time I heard Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony at the Proms, it got rather a frosty reception. Indeed, I recall the Proms Marshalls, as I labelled that handful of seasoned Prommers who populated the front of the arena and issued instructions as to what and when we were to shout out, urging us all not to applaud when the Symphony came to an end. It certainly was not the orchestral playing which upset us; we were hearing the Leningrad Phil, then one of the world’s truly great orchestras, and they were everything they were cracked up to be. What annoyed so many of the audience was the fact that not only were they playing the version with its wholesale cuts, but that it was driven along in an urgent, businesslike manner which seemed to imply the orchestra had no interest in the music and were only playing it under duress. They got the whole thing over and done with in under 40 minutes.
Prommers at that time (it was the very early 1970s) had recently been introduced to the Symphony without cuts and in an expansive performance milking every last drop of emotion from it by a landmark recording from the LSO conducted by André Previn, who proved that there was more than enough great material from Rachmaninov to stretch out for 59 minutes and still leave us wanting more. If the Soviets couldn’t be bothered to treat the work properly, they didn’t deserve our applause. Since then the British audience has felt a certain ownership for Rach 2 and woe betide the conductor who makes cuts or glosses over its emotional significance.
No such hostility was ever going to face the Singapore Symphony Orchestra who performed the same Symphony last night at the Proms. For a start they were going to give us the whole, uncut version. And then Lan Shui, whose over-indulgent approach to the work I have often found mildly cloying, went to town on the over-indulgence managing to stretch the work out to a near record-breaking 65 minutes. As an orchestra the Singapore Symphony wasn’t a patch on the Leningrad team, their ensemble was persistently ragged (hardly a single entry found all players together), at times the violins seemed in something approaching disarray and wind intonation was not all it might have been. But music is not about right notes, seamless blend or perfect coordination; it is about communication and this was as vividly a communicative performance as anybody could wish for. It seethed passion, pathos and power, it oozed emotion, empathy and excitement and it spoke in compelling, if sometimes cloudy, accents.
From the very outset Lan Shui was determined to milk the score for all he could get. A prolonged silence prefaced the rumbling basses of the opening figure, setting off like some heavily laden super-tanker leaving harbour under its own steam, and we had reached the end of the Largo introduction at around the same time many conductors would have had most of the first movement over and done with. Even into the Allegro moderato, we still were battling against the current, rubato piled on not so much by the shovel full as by the JCB bucket load, pauses stretched out to heart stopping length and a general licence with the pulse which seemed the musical equivalent of atrial fibrillation. With the second movement things began to settle down, even if occasional bursts of energy were quickly stifled by the blanket of rubato, but by the time the matchless third came along, Lan Shui had got the excess out of his system and was allowing the music to flow at its own pace. I often describe the third movement clarinet theme as “seeming to hover on the very brink of eternity”, and here it did just that. We did not so much glimpse heaven as look lingeringly and lovingly over it. The Prommers have heard better; but they have heard a lot, lot worse and, as one colleague put it afterwards, you would need to go half way around the world to hear such a compelling performance again.
The orchestral untidiness was, unfortunately, rather too pronounced for comfort in the opening piece, Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila where a frenetic pace made it seem exciting but, whether from nerves, the unaccustomed acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall or simple carelessness, the SSO did not do proper justice to this popular showpiece of orchestral virtuosity. We heard the noise the music made, but missed out on the detail.
The orchestra were on top of their game in the new work by Zhou Long, a piano concerto in all but name (its actual name was Postures). Soloist Andreas Haefliger was superb in this somewhat hyper-active but often exceedingly arresting work, but the real strength lay in the orchestral playing. Zhou Long’s use of blocks of orchestral sound rather than carefully dovetailed musical ideas (it was the piano which provided the connecting thread through these various orchestral effects) suited the Singapore players well and their command of what seemed quite a daunting score was deeply impressive.
However, as with most of the “world orchestras” who have performed thus far at the Proms, the SSO reserved their most dazzling playing for their encore. Not part of their repertoire and learnt especially for this concert, they (and especially Lan Shui) astounded us all with their Waltonian credentials in the rarely-heard March A History of the English Speaking Peoples. The blazing brass, the perky woodwind and the rich strings, not to mention the incisive percussion, all combined to create a simply stunning conclusion which made one wish that they might in future look towards Walton 1; they have the feel for this music and it certainly appealed to the Prommers who, perhaps even more so than Rachmaninov, feel a powerful sense of ownership for this music.