Pavlo Beznosiuk has been in Singapore for a few days. For those unacquainted with his eminence, he is one of the leading figures in the British Early Music brigade, specialising in the music of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. His recordings with the Avison Ensemble, released on the Linn label, have been among the most consistently impressive recordings of this area of the repertory in recent times, and it was hoped he could bring some of his magic to Singapore.
On Thursday he ran a masterclass for conservatory students focusing on playing early music on modern instruments. I would have dearly loved to have been there, but another commitment found me on the other side of town at the same time. However Beznosiuk put his ideas into practice over the next three days, presented a series of concerts with various members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
The alliterative title of this series of concerts was Wind, Water & Waves, but while the first and last of those only occasionally washed into the programme – notably in one of Vivaldi’s Tempesta di mare concertos and in Locke’s incidental music for The Tempest – the programme cleverly featured water in a huge variety of guises. From two sets of Water Music (Handel and Telemann), Vivaldi’s Overture to “The River Seine Rejoicing” (La Senna Festeggiante), Telemann’s musical celebration of Hamburg’s Alster Lake and his extraordinary concerto nicknamed “the Frog” (Frogs do, after all, mate in water, I believe).
Possibly flowing over three consecutive evenings flooded out Singaporean tolerance levels a bit much, and the tide of attendance ebbed very low – especially on the Friday. On top of that, a cursory skim through the programmes might have created the impression that there really was not much to choose between the concerts.
In the event these three performances could hardly have been more different. This was not down to the music nor even Beznosiuk’s wonderfully calm and laid-back approach – although he did become increasingly loquacious over the three days – but to the changes of personnel in the higher orchestral strings.
The winds and double basses always seemed to be loving every moment of it. On Friday, in particular, the wind were up on stage well before the concert began (presumably to keep their instruments at the freezing temperatures the authorities feel is right for the Victoria Concert Hall – it is a fact which few Singapore students believe, but Asian concert halls are considerably colder than Asian ones) and were clearly looking forward to working with Beznosiuk.
Their happy demeanour was in stark contrast to that of many of the string players, who came in with Beznosiuk at the start of the concert. Full praise to double bass Jacek Mirucki who, throughout the first half of the concert was clearly having an absolute ball, entering in to the fun of the music with alacrity. His second half colleague, Guennadi Mouzyka was similarly cheerful and obviously only too happy to be there. Not so the others who turned up grim-faced and sour, looking as if they begrudged every second spent on stage, and sounding utterly waterlogged. Rebel’s enormously entertaining ballet describing Les élémens came across as soggy and damp, while Telemann’s “Die Relinge” only tickled the funny bone because of Beznosiuk’s wryly sardonic interventions.
Saturday’s team was a wholly different crew. Perhaps fired by news of aquatic Gold from Rio, they threw themselves into the programme with relish, dedicating it to the gold medal-winner himself. (An Olympic gold medal, deferral of national service, a million dollars and an SSO concert dedication – can things get any better for Joseph Schooling?)
Highlight of this concert was the fascinating Concerto for Four Violins by the largely forgotten Italian composer Giuseppe Valentini. Beznosiuk inspired Team SSO - Karen Tan, Margit Saur and Chikako Sasaki – to produce some scintillatingly agile playing, while the four violinists goaded themselves into ever greater feats of technical bravado, much like great Olympians spurring each other on to ever greater feats of physical endeavour.
Enough of the Olympics. Now to Sunday’s concert.
The orchestra was the largest and visibly happiest of the three concerts. Beznosiuk himself was having a ball, taking time out to talk informally to the audience and even inserting into Vivaldi’s already extraordinary Concerto in D RV562 such an extraordinary cadenza (much of it based on one of Bach’s favourite Vivaldi pieces) that we seemed in danger of being inundated under the deluge of his gushing virtuosity.
Sunday’s programme began with Matthew Locke’s vividly descriptive incidental music to a stage presentation of The Tempest and ended with a rollicking account of movements from the most famous water music of them all - the Water Music suites Handel wrote for the Thames flotilla assembled in 1717 by King George I.
A series of concerts which had begun as a damp squib ended in cascades of triumphant glory.