08 March 2016

Symphony Fantastique - Singapore Symphony Orchestra

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.

Symphonie Fantastique
Saturday evening (5th March)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Singapore Symphony Orchestra/Jean-Claude Casadeus: Valeriy Sokolov (violin)

Sex. Drugs. Decapitation. Debauchery.  Not the sort of thing you would expect at an average Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert.
But this was by no means an average Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert.  For a start, the orchestra produced such compelling music-making, played with such vibrant colours and generally exuded such complete self-assurance that one wondered what had come over them.

The answer was Jean-Claude Casadeus, who, with characteristic Gallic flair and elegance, coaxed them to do amazing things in front of the Singapore public.

The sex, drugs, decapitation and debauchery are part and parcel of Berlioz’s extraordinary Symphonie Fantastique, a musical picture of a drug-crazed artist, erotically imaging his beloved in a variety of situations ranging from the stylish – the second movement ball was the most compelling waltz you could imagine – to the downright violent – rarely has the guillotine blade fallen with such aplomb as in the fourth movement’s march to the scaffold.

Casadeus re-interpreted what were, when the Symphony was premiered, outrageous orchestral effects, creating the same vividly compelling images of shock and horror which had so appalled the Parisian first night audience back in 1830.  21st century Singaporeans are, however, rather more sturdy folk than 19th century Parisians, and far from appalled mutterings, there were unabashed cheers.  The audience loved it to bits.

There were few hints of the amazing things to come with the concert opener.  The Brahms Violin Concerto started in a very strait-laced manner, Ukrainian star violinist Valeriy Sokolov the epitome of undemonstrative elegance – even down to the sober grey suit (shame he forgot the tie).  Perhaps his clean-shaven approach was not fully matched by a certain muddiness in the SSO; but we can put that down to the inevitable unease which always goes with the start of a big concert.

How it transformed itself during the first movement cadenza.  The master of the subtle nuance, Sokolov drew us into a world of profound intimacy and deep discretion, and when the orchestra soothingly re-emerged from its lengthy slumber, it was to produce playing of the most divine delicacy.

In the deeply lovely slow movement, Casadeus moulded and caressed the music as if with the seasoned hands of an expert masseur, and all too soon we found ourselves led out of the massage parlour by Sokolov and into the invigorating atmosphere of a Hungarian dance hall for the finale.  Brick, crisp and exhilarating, he led us on in a scintillating dance right up to the work’s ultimate climax.

This, alone, would have been well worth the cost of the ticket.  The sex, drugs, decapitation and debauchery which followed were just very welcome add-on benefits.

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