21 September 2015


I was brought up in an age when everyone played Bach on the piano with oodles of colour and expression, lashings of pedal and a wonderfully loose approach to pulse which often lent it a certain Chopinesque quality.  Then along came the harpsichordists, insisting that Bach keyboard music could only be performed legitimately on their instrument, and so persuasive were they that, for the best part of 40 years, nobody questioned their claim; Bach on the piano was considered the ultimate in bad taste and musical gaucherie.  But with the dawn of the 21st century, along came a new generation of pianists who, supported by scholarship which showed that the harpsichord was by no means as ubiquitous in Bach’s time as it was once thought and that, indeed, Bach actually had the piano in mind when he wrote some of his keyboard pieces, presented utterly convincing performances of Bach on the piano.  Add to the mix the growing band of clavichordists who claim much of Bach’s output as their own, and you have a pretty muddled picture.

As an organist, I may have been immune from the raging piano/harpsichord controversy, but we had our own issues to contend with. I began my lessons blissfully unaware that swell pedals, heel/toe pedalling, registration changes and manual hopping were already being frowned upon by organists who believed the only legitimate way to play Bach on an organ was to pedal only with the toes, use only mechanical key action (the heavier the better) and, even, tune the organ to a temperament which rendered it useless in any other repertory.  Luckily, I was sufficiently advanced in my studies by the time this came into vogue that I had the confidence to ignore it and live with the conviction that the old style of Bach playing would one day come back into fashion.

Rising above all this confusing and contentious matter has been, of course, JSB himself, whose music has managed to survive unscathed the countless revolutions in Bach interpretations.  It is often said that Bach’s music is so well written that it works on any instrument, in any circumstance and at any time; and so it does.

That said, I am not sure that Bach’s keyboard concertos sound their best when played as a duet on two full-size Steinway concert grands; somehow the loss of detail seems more keenly felt.  I have no doubt that Steven Tanus is an astute and intelligent Bach player with a fine grasp of the musical architecture and overarching structure of the first movement of the Concerto in F minor (BWV1056).  However, it was not just the slow speed he chose for this which made his performance seem so ponderous at today’s lunchtime recital at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  What disturbed me was the compete intermingling, to the point of confusion, of the two pianos, the intricate textures woven around the instrumental lines completely blurred by the lack of tonal variety between the instruments.  At times it really was not possible to discern which lines were played by Tanus and which by his equally adept partner, Nguyen Le Binh Anh.

Jeong Han Sol took a brisker pace for the first movement of the Bartok 3rd Concerto, but here the playing, while excellent in its clarity and precision, never had the wit, lightness or delicacy which this movement so desperately needs.  It went through the motions well enough, but somehow never came alive, Dolpiti Kongviwatanakul’s handling of the orchestral arrangement was highly competent and showed a good understanding of balance, but even he could not do anything to make the ending seem anything other than a horribly damp squib.

The trouble was, all four performances were of concerto 1st movements.  How I yearned for something complete or, at least, something which ended convincingly instead of all these stillborn concerti.  At least the bassoon of Zhang Zhaoqi offered a welcome change from the potential pianistic overdose  Tackling the extremely demanding Hummel Grand Concerto, he certainly kept his head above water and, discreetly supported by pianist Kerim Vergazov, kept the piece moving along briskly.  It seemed a little bit of a struggle in places and the extended passagework left little room for genuine interpretative input, but he certainly showed a solid technical command of the instrument.

Trombonist Xia Zhengwei took a very different approach with his 1st movement; taken from the concerto by the Danish composer Launy Grondhal.  I remain unconvinced by this as a worthwhile piece of music, and perhaps Xia was right to disregard accuracy and precision in preference to a performance which was high on dramatic delivery.  He certainly had some intriguing ideas – getting someone to carry the instrument on stage for him and then refusing to touch it until Low Shao Suan had launched herself into the introduction – but it all seemed a little too scrappy and uncoordinated to be really effective.  He is a very good stage performer, but the challenges of the chosen piece were not fully addressed today; it deserved just a little more TLC.

Seeking Singapore Sounds

In 1965 Malaysia jettisoned Singapore from under its political umbrella, resulting in the difficult progress of building a nation on a tiny island with no natural resources and a population entirely comprising immigrants drawn there by its strategic location as a trading port.  Few could disagree that, half a century on, Singapore has carved a distinctive place for itself on the world map.  Financially, commercially, architecturally, educationally and politically it is a world apart from the corruption, crime, civil disobedience, poverty, squalor, ethnic tensions, financial mismanagement and political deviousness  (not to mention, in its northern states, rabies) of its former political overseer.  A former Singapore government minister mentioned in a speech that Singapore was, after 50 years of independence from Malaysia, beginning to show a real sense of identity; “When you travelled on the train or bus you never knew who was Malaysian and who was Singaporean; now you can tell the difference”.  Musically, however, Singapore has yet to carve out a unique sound on the world stage, and while its Western and Ethnic ensembles are certainly world-class, it is not yet possible to identify any uniquely Singaporean characteristics in the music they perform.  Last night saw the gala inaugural concert of an orchestra created expressly to address that issue.

Its very name – Singapore Sounds - tells us what they are all about, but enveloping within a conventional Western orchestra a small group of instruments from the musical traditions of the three dominant ethnic groups in Singapore – Chinese, Malay and Indian – is nothing new; I have worked with a good half-dozen similarly-constructed orchestra in Malaysia (often playing the same basic melodies).  The difference here is that this is an extraordinarily good orchestra.

Conductor Adrian Chiang had gathered together outstanding players in every section.  It might seem odd that ethnic Indian musicians were largely absent – notably on the Indian ethnic instruments – but that did not matter since the essence of the orchestra was in creating a Singapore Sound rather than celebrating individual ethnicities.  And the fact was that on every instrument there was a real master.  Chiang’s graceful and unflustered direction together with his understanding of the balance issues and the potential conflict between those players imbued with the metrical pulse and rhythmic order of the Western tradition and those at home with the freer, more naturally flowing movement of the Asian traditions, resulted in an exceptionally cohesive and musically coherent sound. When things did occasionally go a little astray Chiang effortlessly brought it all back into line with consummate control.

The basic issue with such “fusion” orchestras is that, designed and intended to do just one musical thing extremely effectively, the so-called “ethnic” instruments (how I hate that term) seem so inflexible beside the Western ones.  There isn’t much, for example, a Tabla can do other than what it does in Indian Classical music, and there is the ever-present danger that the “ethnic” instruments will appear simply as culturally-conscious window-dressing to music which begins and ends with the Western instruments.

Only one of the works really addressed that issue successfully, and Eric Watson’s Constellations was quite revelatory in effectively combining the various instrumental colours.  This was a superb piece which showed a profound understanding of all the individual instruments and celebrated their distinctive musical qualities rather than their differences.  On a purely musical level, it was so absorbing and well constructed that one quickly forgot any sense of novelty in the instrumental line-up and simply relished the music that was being so well played.

Robert Casteels is also masterly in his marrying of ethnic and Western instruments, but perhaps his Travelogue was a little over-orchestrated to be really effective.  It was originally conceived for a much smaller ensemble, and I imagine it worked superbly in that guise.  But with the bigger orchestra often playing for all their worth, it became overwhelming.  Leslie Tay probably had too many words to say too quickly and too loudly for the amplification system to do anything other than distort them, and although many of the local jokes were caught and appreciated by the audience, many more were lost in the blur of sound.  Towards the end of this enormously enjoyable piece, with its many clever and captivating instrumental effects, Tay sang more and more,revealing a tenor voice of remarkable control and clarity.  I look forward to catching him in some Britten – he has exactly the right voice for that repertory.

Leslie Tay also served as Master of Ceremonies for the evening.  Dressed much in the manner of a British Holiday Camp Entertainments Officer of the 1950 and 60s (with the delivery to match, including phrases like “Did we all enjoy that?”, “I’m sure you were all singing along with that”; he never quite got us all to shout out “Hi-di-hi”, but it was a close-run thing) his presence tended to obstruct rather than cover the small stage changes, but he was really on hand to introduce the Minister for Education, Heng Swee Keat.  Elections over, the Minister was not there to speechify to a captive audience but to present violinist Lynnette Seah with a specially made “SG50 bow”.  Luckily bow-maker Paul Goh was on hand to extricate the bow from its presentation box, and Seah then made use of it in a virtuoso display arrangement of Home by Phoon Yu.  But whether it was the arrangement, Ms Seah or the bow itself, despite its routine pyrotechnics, the music never really felt anything more than lots of movement for movement’s sake.

Another Phoon Yu arrangement – of Munnaeru Vaaliba – had begun the concert and had immediately highlighted the basic problem facing Singapore Sounds.  While the sound they make is superficially indicative of the ethnic mix in Singapore, there is little (if anything) which is distinctly Singaporean in the music itself.  Many of the pieces arranged for the programme might have resonance for Singaporeans because of the words usually associated with them, but shorn of those words and presented as purely instrumental pieces of music, the melodies have absolutely nothing Singaporean about them at all.  Indeed most are trite and musically shallow and cannot support the inflated level of arrangement to which many of them had been subjected.  Phang Kok Jun’s Xinyao Medley and Zaidi Sabtu-Ramli’s Singai Naadu fell into that trap, and Syafiqh ‘Adha was probably wise to confine her Singapura Medley to a style which did little to deviate from the sort of sound made by any Malay ensemble. 

It was left to Lee Jinjun to produce the two most distinctive arrangements of the evening.  His sour Fantasia on Rasa Sayang was notable for a fugue which took the ethnic instruments so far out of their comfort zone that it was quite spell-binding, while his Chan Mali Chan Variations featured a simply breath-taking virtuoso performance from Euphonium player Kang Chun Meng.  In an “Orchestra of Generals” (to mis-quote Burney) he was by far and away the most impressive, turning out a performance of  masterly technical command and musical authority; the possible problems in integrating inflexible Ethnic instruments with Western ones dominated by that most fluidly flexible of brass instruments, the euphonium, were neatly side-stepped by not having any in the ensemble in the first place.

The fact remains that, while Singapore Sounds is an excellent orchestra - certainly the best of the fusion orchestras I’ve ever heard - and its conductor is particularly sensitive to the challenges of legitimising music performed by such an ensemble, the sound they create is in no way distinctly Singaporean.  On top of that, the music they play takes us no further along the path to establishing a distinct and unique Singaporean musical sound.  That’s something Singapore needs to work at over the next 50 years.

20 September 2015

Dying Critics

The announcement that the New Musical Express is being turned into a free-sheet given away in tube stations, student refectories and record shops prompted one television station to call in a Pop Music Journalist for interview.  For over half a century the NME (its title cleverly contrived to create a mnemonic reflecting its anti-establishment, rebellious character) was the arbiter and leader of taste and fashion in the pop music world and its writers were regarded by many as the ultimate authorities in commenting on the genre.  The journalist interviewed on television clearly felt that the magazine, even in its new free format, had no future because “people don’t look to music journalists and critics to tell them what to think about a song or to govern their tastes in music; they can go online and read countless reviews from their peers which are far more relevant to them”. 

That’s all true, and it is a widespread perception that with so many download sites offering so much music and with so many online reviews to read there is no need for the professional opinion-former, taste-arbiter or music critic.  Who needs to go through the effort of getting hold of a newspaper or magazine and reading through columns of someone else’s ideas when you can click a button and read bite-sized morsels of thought from “real-life” individuals?

In the arena of Pop music, where appreciation of a piece of music is largely governed by personal taste, I doubt that the semi-literate and largely incoherent words strung loosely together as “customer reviews” on download sites really offer much of value to the reader; even if the writers obviously like to get something off their chests.  In the world of Classical music, where appreciation of a piece of music is a far more complex and multi-faceted thing, there remains a real need (if not an actual demand) for comment and analysis at a level which goes far beyond the goblets of dismembered grammar which adorn those sites where, perhaps, a majority of enthusiasts go to access their music.

Taste is a very personal thing, and to an extent there is little point in anyone trying to convince another to like a particular piece of music or a particular performance.  Taste is the product of an intricate mix of social and ethnic roots, family background, education, intelligence and experience.  Everyone’s taste is valid and to be respected even where it differs radically from someone else’s.  Given that, can there ever be validity in promoting one person’s taste above another; which is what the online “customer reviews”, be they for airlines, hotels, restaurants, sex partners or music, do? 

For example, do any of these comments, taken at random from a YouTube video of Zara Larsson, offer any kind of valid insight into the music or its performance?

This is literally the best thing i have ever seen and heard
Simply one word, Wow.
loved it so much!! I love her voice, it's so amazing
This was shot in Iceland, or some place that looks exactly like Iceland. Cool song :)

All these sad souls, it seems to me, simply feel the need to indulge in the narcissistic practice of inflicting their taste on the world.  It isn’t much better (if at all) in the Classical music arena.  Again, taken at random, I found a YouTube clip of someone called Han Kim playing the clarinet.  I’m not sure that any of these comments have any relevance to what I heard.

he's good i play clarinet too
If u dont like Asians dont say it no one likes white people and i rather be an Asian then a white milky person
Everyone like white people everyone hates u

And this is the kind of valid music criticism which our Pop Music Journalist feels is appropriate to replace the columns of thought-provoking prose which was, for so long, the stuff of NME?

Genuine criticism, in any field, has to transcend the limitations of individual taste and try to encourage people to think differently or, at least, approach the reception of a musical piece or performance from a different standpoint.  To do that, critics need to call on a wide-ranging experience, knowledge, understanding and impartiality to give credibility, authority and substance to their writing without imposing an individual taste on those who do not share it. 

The death, yesterday, of the art critic Brian Sewell (him of the infinitely tight vowels and delicately manicured consonants) robbed us of one of the last true critics; a man whose immense knowledge and love of his subject allowed him to utter damning and often harsh criticism without any hint that he was trying to force his own opinion on his readership.  We certainly knew what he liked and what he did not like, but we understood where he was coming from, and even if we vehemently disagreed, we took note of his words and certainly re-considered our own opinions; even if ultimately we did not change them.

It is indeed a very sad day when his kind of intelligent, considered and focused criticism is replaced by the wit and wisdom of the likes of Claus Marboe Sigersmark or, God forbid, Alison Dilaurentis 

14 September 2015

A Post-Proms Celebration

Still on something of a high after listening to Benjamin Grosvenor’s scintillating account of the Shostakovich 2nd Piano Concerto on Saturday’s Last Night of the Proms in London, I must admit I found it a little difficult coming back down to earth and hearing it again less than 48 hours later in the very different environment of Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  However, Mervyn Lee’s performance of the 1st movement at Monday’s Noon Recital was in every respect a very different creature, even if the audience was, per capita, almost as boisterous.  Lee may have lacked the razor sharp wit and impish humour of his English counterpart, but he lacked for nothing in his crisp and agile fingerwork or in his insouciant fluency over the keyboard.  What made this such a different performance was the fact that it was in a two-piano version, in which guise the work takes on a wholly different hue; without Shostakovich’s delicate and incisive orchestration, it all becomes inevitably heavier and more solid.  With Teh Jiexiang as the second pianist, the performance treated the work as a fully-fledged duet with no sense of a soloist/accompanist relationship, more a pairing of equals who, as a duet team, worked absolutely perfectly together.  This was a committed and intelligent performance, Lee relishing the frequent excursions into the stratospheric register of the piano while Teh had an almost instinctive sense of the conversational aspects of the writing.  I have to say, I enjoyed it almost as much as I did the London version, even if the occasion felt a little less celebratory.

Celebration, wit and humour were certainly to be found in this recital, even if the perpetrator looked for all the world as if he had just made his way up from the boiler room; I would not have been surprised to see him wipe his hands on a piece of cotton waste before settling down to play.  But for all his drab and crumpled appearance, Bagaskoro Byar Sumirat brought a real breath of fresh, spring air to his account of the Francaix L’horloge de flore.  He had a hard job in front of him.  This is one of my absolute favourite pieces – one of those eight I would have to take to that mythical desert (if CD-player enhanced) island – and I have heard just about every oboist of note perform it.  Like the Shostakovich it certainly loses something without the orchestral accompaniment (although that was in no way the fault of Low Shao Ying who managed the piano reduction with great skill) but the frequent shifting of moods, from the reflective to the obscenely jaunty, were splendidly handled, little touches of interpretative wit added to give real sparkle to a delightful and utterly captivating performance.  Certainly this extremely confident young Indonesian oboist is a player to watch, so clearly at home is he on his instrument and so natural his musicianship.

Faced with the daunting  Chaconne from Bach’s unaccompanied Violin Partita in D minor, Hsieh Yu-Ling showed supreme confidence; as well she might, her astounding technical command was more than up to the monumental demands of this celebrated solo piece and she delivered it with great flair and not inconsiderable virtuosity.  She produced a gorgeous tone and made much of the opportunities the music had for dynamic display, even if she tended to throw all her coals on to the fire too early, leaving little left to give impact at the end.  True, it often forgot to be a Chaconne, and turned itself eagerly into a Toccata, and the lack of that measured tread robbed this work of much of its inherent brilliance.  But as a performance this was dazzling.

By choosing two little known and technically undemonstrative pieces, the Ukrainian violinist Orest Smovzh showed a wonderful contempt for the lure of virtuoso display.  Joachim’s Romance is a thoroughly forgettable and largely unexceptional piece that, as Joachim intended it, is designed to display poise and discretion from the player, both of which Smovzh unquestionably possessed.  He also showed an intelligent approach to the style, keeping his vibrato tight and restrained as we know Joachim did when playing the piece, and avoiding excess of sentimentality.  The real joy of his performance, however, came with his magical account of the last two movements of Britten’s early Suite Op.6.  Inhabiting that somewhat elusive territory between the English pastorale of Vaughan Williams and the more desolate East Anglian music of Peter Grimes, Smovzh found for the “Lullaby” (a piece I have seen described, fittingly, as “vulnerable”) the ideal balance, evoking neither excessive tranquillity nor desolation, but a neatly poised, beautifully understated line above Ge Xiaozhe exquisite piano accompaniment.  The “Waltz” is perhaps an even more difficult piece to come to terms with.  Best described as a Viennese Waltz performed by celebrating Morris-men with foaming tankards of ale to hand which they drain as the piece proceeds, he caught the mood perfectly, turning the occasional bucolic outbursts fluidly back into Britten’s sparse harmonic idiom.  This was musicianship of the very highest order put at the service of music which many violinists avoid; for them the rewards seem slight, but given such musically informed and technically accomplished playing, in Orest Smovzh the music has found an exceptionally perceptive and compelling performer.  And that's as good a cause for celebration as any music lover could wish for.

07 September 2015

Concert des Amis de Tansman...and more

Somewhat strangely, given his eminence in 18th century music scholarship, it was the late Stanley Sadie who, albeit inadvertently, introduced me to the music of Alexandre Tansman.  As a jobbing reviewer on Musical Times under Sadie’s editorship, I was called into his office to be handed a copy of Album d’Amis by Tansman suggesting that it was “probably worth reviewing”.  It was, and my brief review, albeit suggesting that the music “cannot shake off strong overtones of French Impressionism”, duly appeared in 1982.  The composer’s name has stuck in my memory ever since, even if we rarely get a chance to hear his music.  For the record, he was a Polish composer who lived from 1897 to 1986 and produced a very substantial amount of music for a staggering array of instruments and ensembles and in an equally staggering variety of genres; including numerous operas, ballets, nine symphonies, fistfuls of concerti, a surprisingly large number of various pieces in memory of his contemporaries (such as Falla and Stravinsky) and battalions of piano and chamber works, many sufficiently short and sufficiently playable to have become set pieces in examination syllabuses and competitions.

Such has been the fate of the Sonatina for bassoon and piano which, by virtue of it being a rare work of musical value for the instrument, probably gets passed through the hands of more bassoon students than anything else.  Which is not to say that it is not a very fine piece and given a fine player can make a real impression on the audience.  It certainly had a fine player – indeed an exceptionally fine one – in Liang Geng who performed it as the closing item in today’s student recital at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in Singapore.  Brilliantly (and there is no other word for it) partnered by Liu Jia, Liang strode through the piece’s three, concise and interlinked movements with a panache and sure-footedness which brought home just what a versatile and colourful instrument the bassoon can be when given the right conditions.  This was bassoon playing of the very highest order supported by a most intelligent level of musicianship which brought out the full scope of Tansman’s well-crafted writing.

Liu Jia had also been involved in the first item of the concert, two movements from Mozart’s Violin Sonata in A.  The violinist, Hong Mengqi, was a vision in deep, shimmering green, and there was a spring-lime freshness to her playing, full of vivacity and vigour.  What a shame, though, she looked so miserable, unable even to muster the slightest whiff of a smile when she came back to take a well-deserved second bow.  First year cellist, Chen Jia Yu, positively beamed at her audience as she tripped joyously through Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo Capriccioso, giving her accompanist, Low Shao Ying, more than a run for her money.  Blest with the most flexible left hand action, Chen threw off Tchaikovsky’s capricious writing with great aplomb, making light work of its daunting technical demands.  Perhaps a little more precision in the left hand might not have gone amiss, and one would hope that, if nothing else, a few years in the Conservatory will reveal to her the need to use the fluent virtuosity she undoubtedly possesses in the service of a stylistically aware interpretation rather than as an end in itself.

For pianist Melivia Citravani Raharjo, the technical demands of the 1st movement of Chopin’s F minor Concerto were no problem, and she flowed across the notes with consummate ease and poise, beautifully – indeed splendidly – supported by Anthony Hartono’s realisation of the orchestral reduction.  Indeed, at times, one rather wished the roles had been reversed for, while Raharjo had no qualms with any aspect of the solo part, she does not have that assertiveness or innate feeling for style which would have elevated this performance from being an ideally balanced piano duet into a fair imitation of a solo concerto.  Chopin’s writing is so thoroughly pianistic that, when it is condensed on to two hands at the piano, the orchestral score sounds perfectly idiomatic; and for the solo to emerge from this, there really needed to be a little more substance and character.  That said, the concert once again yielded some outstanding music making from the up-coming generation of musical headline artists.

06 September 2015

How Not To Promote Yourself

The artist photo!  What does it tell us about the artist?

I recall at a masterclass with Gillian Weir, I was attempting the Fugue of a Hindemith Sonata and expressed the comment that I found it "dry".  "Look at a photograph of Hindemith", Ms Weir told me, "You will see he is usually smiling".  Enigmatic, Mona Lisa-esque the smile may be, but it is there, and that has helped me immeasurably in both interpreting and listening to Hindemith's music.

One assumes (and hopes) artists take similar care to send out the message they want when posing for their publicity mug shots.  After all, it is sending out a signal which must be clear to all who receive it.  What does the artist want us to think when we see their photo.  A stern, old-fashioned, reliable performer?  A performer who is innovative and takes an unconventional approach?  A musician who has nothing original or distinctive to offer?  All these can be deduced from a well posed artist photo.

But then I came across this hideous apparition.  At first glance it appears to show a severed head being held for the camera by, one assumes, the executioner.  Although I have never been in any way tempted to seek out the ISIL execution videos on the net, I assume they look like this one.

Closer inspection suggests the head may still be attached to a body, but that an unknown hand is holding it out of a high window, ready to thrust it over the edge unless an assurance is made.  Perhaps the unknown assailant is saying "if you play another note, I'll throw you out the window.  Promise me you will give up music and take up crochet!"

What else can we make of this artist's publicity photo, surely one of the most awful yet produced? One thing is certain; if her playing engenders such a violent reaction in one listener, then her concerts are to be avoided at all costs.

A Mona Lisa-esque smile

The Cherubini Conundrum

Why is it that the composer whom Beethoven regarded as the greatest of his day, eclipsing even Mozart, has fallen into almost total oblivion?  Could it be that Beethoven got it wrong and that Luigi Carlo Zanobi Salvadore Maria Cherubini was not, in fact, overly talented on the composing front?  Sadly, I fear this is the case and if we can admire Beethoven for his music, his ability to recognise genius in others seems to have been sadly lacking.

Cherubini was a great survivor whose life spanned some of the more turbulent periods in 18th and 19th century European politics, and whose personal associations would have brought other men a catalogue of enemies too numerous to list.  Imagine a modern-day figure, possibly on the Executive Committee of FIFA, highly-respected by the world’s media, a close friend of Malaysia’s Najib as well as a bosom buddy of Dr M and a staunch defender of Anwar Ibrahim, who, in this week’s election stands against the PAP yet earns the party’s unwavering respect, is photographed alongside both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton on their respective campaign trails, is publicly admired by David Cameron and Angela Merkel, seen dancing on Saddam Hussein’s grave and is a staunch defender of the policies of Bashar al-Assad, and you have someone with the survival instincts of Cherubini.  Little wonder, then, that Beethoven might have admired the man; but his music seems, to my ears at least, lacking in true distinction.

What little I know of Cherubini’s output – restricted largely to the Requiem, a Symphony in D minor, the second Horn Sonata (I’ve never come across the first – but, there again, I’ve never looked for it) and the opera Médée – is instantly forgettable, and probably his most frequently performed concert work, the Anacréon Overture is as unforgettable as the rest of them, its interest (for concert promoters) being the obvious influence – especially in the excruciatingly long-drawn-out ending – it had on Beethoven himself.

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra could not have played it better than they did on Saturday evening; the strings were beautifully crisp and precise, Lan Shui’s dynamic moulding excellently proportioned, and the overall balance and control immaculately polished.  It was just that, once it was over, I found I had forgotten it had ever been played.

Not so the two Beethoven works which dominated the programme; the 1st  and 4th Piano Concertos, a continuation of the Orchestra’s survey of the five Viennese concertos with Stephen Hough which is taking place over the course of this week.  The 1st began well enough, but the clarity of articulation across the orchestra and the general assertiveness of tone which had so marked the previous performances and which seemed to be a legacy of the Orchestra’s immersion in the music of Bach and the interpretative embraces of Suzuki, wore off well before the second movement began.  An incredibly focused clarinet solo in the slow movement was worthy of note, but hints of orchestral (and pianistic) cloudiness which emerged here, became rather pronounced in the Finale which, never fully caught the spring-like jauntiness this music needs; too often sounding like the over-enthusiastic running of an amateur sports event.

Clearly, though, for others in the audience this was not just a brilliant performance but one of such outstanding wonderfulness that they decided to stand up at the end and call out incoherently.  Not a spontaneous reaction, I hasten to add, but one which evolved after a few minutes during which the parties responsible strained their necks around the auditorium to see whether there were others of like mind or whether they could make their mark by being the first.  Luckily this unspontaneous show of audience bravado proved to be quite uncontagious.

Audience spontaneity broke out after the first movement of the 4th Concerto however, as well it should, for this was a scintillating performance.  Such delicious poise from Hough with the restrained piano opening chords, and how delightfully Lan Shui held the SSO back just long enough to make the point of the opening moment of true musical revolution.  No wonder that, as the movement reached its triumphant conclusion, spontaneous applause began to break out around the hall.  But suddenly, and with heart-stopping abruptness, it ceased; the perpetrators suddenly aware that they were committing what too many stuck up, elitist classical music aficionados regard as a fearful solecism.  The man in front of me, whose hands were at the very point of contact before he realised it was a sin, shrunk miserably into his seat, relieved at having been spared the ire of the self-appointed silence merchants.  Yet, in truth, it is those of us who declined to applaud who showed real ignorance.  For no Beethoven Concerto first movement would ever have been received in silence, nor would the composer have wished it.  Spontaneous appreciation of great music and a fine performance were regarded, in Beethoven’s day, as quite right and proper; and it is to my eternal shame that I do not have the courage to step out of my hide-bound musical roots and show genuine approval when it’s due.

As it was, the rest of the Concerto went from strength to strength, the profoundly lovely slow movement full of the tragedy and sorrow Beethoven apparently saw in the desolation of Niobe.  An intriguing pre-concert talk drew attention to the innovations which had taken place in piano design between the 1st and 4th concertos, and it was intriguing to see how Beethoven employed all these new devices in this single movement, and how well Stephen Hough addressed all of the particular issues raised in the talk.  The throw-away Finale was as bright and breezy as the ending of the First had not been, yet, perhaps shocked by the near-solecisms of the first movement putative applauders, the audience was slow to react, and even the carefully choreographed standers seemed a little slow to get to their feet.  The performance was not worth a standing ovation (nor did it get one), but was well worth the prolonged applause and the gift of a superbly-delivered Chopin Nocturne as an encore. 

And, for the record, Chopin also admired Cherubini, regarding him as one of the major figures in Parisian musical circles.  Funny how, 12 hours after the event, I can remember every note of the Chopin, but can’t even recall a moment from the Cherubini.

03 September 2015

Bright Beethoven

Nobody needs an excuse to celebrate Beethoven, and so it is by pure coincidence that both the Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Singapore Symphony are running their own mini-Beethoven festivals at roughly the same time.  The Hong Kong orchestra is giving us all nine symphonies in four concerts during November, each conducted by Jaap van Zweden, while the Singapore orchestra has pipped them to the post by embarking on its survey of five Beethoven piano concertos with Stephen Hough last night.  The remaining concertos will be heard over two more concerts on Saturday and next Thursday, all three conducted by Lan Shui.

Neither orchestra is presenting the works in chronological order, the programming seemingly devised for scheduling convenience rather than with an eye to historical context, and that allows us to listen to the works on their own terms without any sense of following a composer’s stylistic development.  In the case of the Singapore concerts this is probably all to the good, since they have chosen to exclude the earlier Piano Concerto (now referred to as “no.0”) which, while often dismissed as a juvenile work (Beethoven wrote it in Bonn when he was 12 or 13) is, in fact, an accomplished work which shows more than a few signs of the emerging genius which, admittedly, only fully flourished once it was nurtured by the musical hot house of Vienna.

Thus it was that last night saw the pairing of the Second and Fifth concertos.  That left room for a 15 minute work by Hough himself, not featuring the piano, but highlighting the more sombre and reflective tones of the cello, played with suitable intensity and a potent profundity by SSO principal, Ng Pei-Sian.  Inhabiting a sound world predominantly soft and static, if influences were to be sought in The Loneliest Wilderness, the most obvious were Rachmaninov and Wagner, the latter recalled by the work’s principal theme which bore a striking resemblance to the “Faith” motiv from Parsifal.  It was a beautiful and tranquil work, relying on a silent audience (which it got) and a delicately poised orchestra (which it also got in ample measure), but it was an unfortunate coincidence that, yesterday morning, the BBC had broadcast a report on what it described as “the longest piece of classical music ever recorded” (not, as some news outlets have it, the longest piece of classical music ever written which is, I believe, Vexations by Erik Satie), an “eight-hour lullaby” called Sleep by Max Richter fully intended, according to the composer, to send the audience to sleep.  There was something quite soporific about the calm, unruffled unfolding of Hough’s The Loneliest Wilderness which, I am quite sure, would have been expunged had one read, while listening to the music, the poem by Herbert Read which was at the heart of the music.  As it was, the Esplanade’s policy of plunging the hall into almost total darkness during the performance meant that there was no hope of reading the poem or the booklet notes unless you had with you a torch (which few in the audience did) or a mobile phone with a brightly illuminated screen (which, it seemed everyone in the audience had). 

The thing about having such a dark hall is that the myriad lights of little (and not so little) digital screens serve as a hugely distracting visual display, like so many distorted fireflies buzzing around the hall.  Why on earth does the SSO insist on asking people to switch their phones “to silent”, when it’s not the noise which distracts so much as the illuminated screens.  Tell them to switch the damn things off!  There was even one lady, high in a gallery by the stage, who held her phone up in the air in order to take a picture of Ng at his cello, the light shining so brightly that just about everyone was looking at her rather than the orchestra.  Luckily her husband (or boyfriend, or client) put his hand up to pull the phone down before the eagle-eyed door-warders were able to issue their familiar sibilant admonition; but one wondered why the putative photographer had not just ripped off all her clothes, stood on her seat and called out to the entire audience, “I’m taking a picture with the camera on my smart phone”; it would hardly have served as a greater distraction.

Back to the music, and after having dragged Hough on stage to take the composer’s bow at the end of The Loneliest Wilderness, Lan Shui was positively left bobbing in the wake of Hough as he strode on again to take the pianist’s stool for the Second Concerto.  What a charmer this piece is.  Full of delightful ideas, gestures and devices, this was an utterly charming performance.  The SSO, obviously still fired up from its two previous weeks immersed, respectively, in the music of Bach and in the interpretative embraces of Masaaki Suzuki, played with impeccable stylishness, some astounding violin articulation, and a sound which, enhanced by some gloriously robust (and secure) natural horn playing, was about as authentically Beethovenian as any but the most specialist orchestras ever achieve.  Coupled with Hough’s thoroughly absorbing musicianship – he does not so much interpret the music as communicate his total immersion in it – this Concerto performance was an absolute cracker, creating a vivid and wholly enjoyable introduction to three consecutive concerts of Beethoven piano concertos.

If the “Emperor”, after the interval, was a little less polished, a little less convincing and a little less stylistically assured than the Second, that is not to deny that it was still a very fine performance indeed.  It would probably be asking too much of the SSO to replicate the exceptional qualities evident before the interval, but even with a few shaky, smudgy and dubious moments, this still had so much to commend it.  Notable was Hough’s generally understated approach.  No barnstorming exhibition of voluble virtuosity here, rather an exploration of the piano’s more subdued and gentle qualities (ably matched by an orchestra now completely at ease playing neatly and softly at the same time) which made the occasional explosions of sound all the more vivid.  Dynamic contrast became an inevitable consequence of Beethoven’s music, not only after his encroaching deafness, but in the wake of the French bombardment of Vienna, and in this vividly coloured performance we had even more light and shade than is possible from the combination of a darkened Esplanade and illuminated digital screens.