08 March 2016

OMM Beethoven 9

Although reviews I contribute to various outlets do not usually get reprinted on my blog, I have been asked to reprint two I contributed to the Straits Times in Singapore this weekend in order to give them a wider audience.  If you wish to make use of these in some way, you must seek permission from the copyright holders - Singapore Press Holdings.  Otherwise, I hope you enjoy this little glimpse of the hugely active musical environment which is reflected through the pages of the ST Life supplement on a daily basis.

Beethoven 9
Friday evening (4th March)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Orchestra of the Music Makers, Maior Chorus, Queensland Festival Chorus/Chan Tze Law

Poor old Beethoven. He was not to know the problems he would cause  200 years later by making his Ninth Symphony too short to fill a concert programme yet too monumental to sit beside another work without eclipsing it.

Chan Tze Law addressed the problem ingeniously, opening the programme with a short but mighty work for choir and orchestra by the contemporary Estonian composer, Eriks Esenvalds.  Lakes Awake at Dawn was  heavy on atmosphere, but otherwise pretty static, and once the ravishing sound of massed choir and orchestra had made their impact, it had little more to say. 

That left room for the last 20 minutes or so of Wagner’s unabashedly joyful Mastersingers.  In a performance unusually fresh and vigorous – after all, the performers hadn’t had to plough through the three hours of music which usually precedes this – Chan kept things light and brisk, avoiding all but the merest hint that the ending, designed as the summation of a massive operatic undertaking, was in any way overblown.

Daniel Sumegi proved a natural Wagnerian with his delivery of the magisterial words of Hans Sachs, and an instinctive Beethovenian with his stentorian admonitions before the climactic statement of the “Ode to Joy”.  But he was most impressive as an impromptu compere, genially inviting the capacity audience to take a mass selfie before the Beethoven began.  What palpitations this must have caused the Esplanade’s anti-camera politburo can only be imagined, but it was a lot of fun.

If, in the Beethoven, the Orchestra of the Music Makers occasionally teetered on the edge (they were living very dangerously in the third movement) they more than compensated with some crisp, clear and engagingly committed playing.  Purists concerned at the presence of a tuba on stage (an instrument not even invented when Beethoven was around) can rest easy in the knowledge that this was an authentic performance of Mahler’s revised orchestration of Beethoven’s original where, had he had a kitchen sink to hand, he would surely have added that to the mix.

And with these bulky forces, the performance had rare strength and vibrancy; which might also be because this was the first performance of the Ninth Symphony by the orchestra and the combined forces of Singapore’s Maior Chorus and Brisbane’s Queensland Festival Chorus.  The choral tone was wonderful, the overall balance impeccable, and the inner detail crystal clear.  As an interpretation it was genuinely awe-inspiring. 

An immensely life-affirming performance was crowned by a magnificent quartet of soloists.  In addition to Sumegi, these included tenor Virgilio Marino, whose angular delivery of the Turkish-style variation in the choral finale was exquisite, the richly resonant contralto Fiona Campbell, and soprano Janani Sridhar who floated effortlessly up to the impossibly high registers demanded by Beethoven yet still managed to exude that sense of joy which permeated the entire concert.

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