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.

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