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.