Back in April, the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. England, naturally, was awash with events, and on the day itself – April 23rd – BBC Radio 3 devoted an entire day to music programmes from Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, all with a Shakespeare theme. Jazz, orchestral concerts, songs and choruses, chamber works, piano recitals, cinematic and theatrical scores; all presented with a Shakespearean connection, obvious or oblique. Since then, Shakespeare musical events seemed to have died down a bit, so the Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s new 2016/7 concert season opening with a “Shakespeare 400” series seems to have come somewhat late in the day.
A sense of last minute planning has been heightened by programmes with only a peripheral Shakespearean connection, and largely built around a standard-repertory concerto. I took pains in my concert notes for the first programmes in the series to draw Shakespearean links with all the works or composers performed, but the powers-that-be in the SSO chose to expunge these from the printed programme books; so, as far as the audience was concerned, Shakespeare was confined to a single work in last night’s concert.
It opened with the wholly un-Shakespearean Vltava from Smetana’s set of tone poems celebrating his native Bohemia. Possibly this was included to acknowledge the SSO’s visit to Prague this Spring, but if Lan Shui and the SSO had picked up any useful interpretative insights from their very brief sojourn on Czech soil, it was not immediately obvious here – unless it was in the rather murky waters implied by some muddy wind playing at the start, a long way from the clear sparkling streams of Smetana’s imagination. Generally the wind seemed not yet to have blown away the cobwebs collected during their summer break and it was not until the violins sailed in with a wonderfully expansive account of the main theme, that the performance began to have some kind of objective. Shui’s approach to this hugely popular score, however, was piecemeal, bumping uneasily from whirlpool to eddy rather than flowing freely over them. He clearly enjoyed the more turbulent moments, but as a whole this was a performance which lacked both coherence and aural polish.
A big contrast came with the main work of the programme, Chopin’s First Piano Concerto. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that this is not a work I hold particularly dear. I confess to finding its bursts of virtuoso bravura, its tinkling genteelness and its on-the-sleeve sentimentality tiresome. The fact that it seems to get played to distraction in Asia does nothing to endear itself to me. However, while my heart dropped as the SSO launched into that sturdy but unprepossessing orchestral introduction, it lifted the moment Yulianna Avdeeva touched the piano keys.
There was something infinitely attractive about her approach. Soothing, gentle and undemonstrative, understating the bravura, injecting iron into the genteelness and giving a steely edge to hints of sentimentality, she left much of the headline emotion outside the hall and simply caressed the piano with grace, unpretentious fluency and consummate command. For once, the Concerto made a bit of musical sense to me, and while I still believe that its length surpasses its musical arguments, I did not find myself wishing – as I usually do - that Chopin could have laid off the continual rehashing of ideas. In subtle ways Avdeeva was developing and enriching these ideas at each appearance in a way which made satisfying musical sense. She did not always get the fullest support from Shui, whose fondness for emotional display often jarred against her studied lack of pathos, and there was a moment in the last movement when an innocuous counter-melody from the cellos wore very thin indeed played, as it was, without a hint of variation over and over again. This was not a performance which focused on sweet sounds and heroic display but began to find something rather more significant within the music. I would need to hear Ms Avdeeva play it again a few times to be sure, but I think I may be on the path to conversion!
In the first 10 years of its existence, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra performed Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet more often than any other work (Debussy’s La Mer came a long-distant second). They even played it in its entirety twice, possibly because in their ranks they had a violinist who was a dab hand at the mandolin. It was always a huge hit with the audience, and I thought audiences the world over loved and adored it. However, attending last night’s pre-concert talk, I learnt that Singapore audiences barely know the piece and generally regard Prokofiev’s music as “difficult”. (That said, the talk – which studiously avoided more than passing mention of the works performed in the concert itself – included the strange claims that, like Shostakovich, Prokofiev never left the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik Revolution, that he was a 19th century composer, and that “it may come as a surprise, but I believe Prokofiev wrote more lush melodies than Stravinsky”.)
While many Singaporeans in the concert itself may have been struggling with Prokofiev's “difficult” music for Romeo and Juliet, the only difficulty others of us encountered in yesterday’s seven pickings from the first two orchestral suites was that Shui chose to end with “Tybalt’s Death”, albeit in a scintillating, brilliantly executed performance taken at an absolutely cracking pace and effectively blowing away any remaining cobwebs from the orchestra. What was difficult about this from the listeners’ point of view? We are used to hearing extracts from the work performed in concert and ending on a more reflective note, and to end with such a violent death scene sent us all out in a somewhat ambiguous frame of mind. I missed the raw aggressiveness of the opening dissonant crashes of “Montagues and Capulets”, but the striding theme, underpinned by a powerfully driving percussion section, was truly glorious. And while the more introspective moments of “Madrigal” and “Romeo and Juliet Before Parting” were rather elusive in Shui’s reading, he gave a wonderfully exotic edge to the “Dance of the Antilles Maidens” as well as a real sense of tragedy in “Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb”.