Concert review: Virtuosic playing lacks some drama

CONCERT REVIEW

Masato Suzuki – Inspired by Leipzig

Singapore Symphony Orchestra – Masato Suzuki (conductor), Albert Tiu (piano)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Friday (Sept 6, 2019)

Japanese conductor-composer-harpsichordist-organist Masato Suzuki was last heard with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, conducted by his father, Masaaki Suzuki.

This evening the younger Suzuki led the SSO in a programme with music all linked to Leipzig, the early capital of western classical music.

Singapore-based pianist Albert Tiu joined them in two showpieces that were premiered by keyboard superstars of their day.

The programme opened with Stowkoski’s orchestral arrangement of J.S. Bach’s great Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which countless young persons have heard through the Disney film Fantasia, likely one of their earliest encounters with classical music.

One can easily envision Masato Suzuki at the helm of the Esplanade Concert Hall Klais organ playing Bach’s original score, filling the hall with hair-raising sounds. Getting a symphony orchestra to replicate this grandeur in the same hall is no mean feat.

Despite the admirable efforts of the conductor and every SSO player on stage, the visceral impact needed for the work was not fully attained. There was highly virtuosic playing by harps and strings, and strong playing overall, but the complex counterpoint and Suzuki’s sometimes extreme rubato were in the way.

There is a slightly tenuous link to Leipzig in Chopin’s Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” for Piano and Orchestra. The Polish composer used Mozart’s opera melody as the theme for a set of variations. An early work, the brilliantly pianistic opus number 2 was destined to launch his career as a pianist and composer.

Albert Tiu, associate professor of piano at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music showed his own keyboard ability and musical sensitivity well on the piece. Given the operatic background and unabashedly showoff nature of the work, a greater sense of drama from orchestra and soloist would have been welcome.

Unusually there was another major work for piano with orchestra – Schumann’s Introduction and Allegro Appassionato, inspired by Byron’s works and written for Clara Schumann, who by all accounts was one of the greatest pianists (of any gender) of all times.

Unlike a typical piano concerto, the work is in two parts (fast-slow). Written several years after his piano concerto and completed in just two days, it is more contemplative and less accessible than the former.

Tiu’s lyricism shone throughout the work, and the fluidity of his playing kept the music fresh. In the end, though, one feels that neither the Chopin Variations nor the Schumann Introduction and Allegro Appassionato fully showcased Tiu’s musicianship.

Suzuki offered what he described as an amuse-bouche to Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 5 “Reformation” in his 4-minute orchestration of Bach’s chorale, “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein” (“When we are in utmost need”).

Like Bach, Mendelssohn was a Protestant. In his “Reformation” Symphony which he wrote to mark the presentation of Martin Luther’s Augsburg Confession, Mendelssohn includes the theme to Luther’s hymn, “A mighty fortress is our God”. Suzuki’s deeply rooted affinity to sacred music was demonstrated through the orchestra’s playing in the second half, which was immediately more committed and coherent.

From the opening of the symphony, Suzuki’s tempos and shaping of passages were excellent, although some of his Sibelius-like brass swells felt out of place. The SSO woodwinds were in great form in the sprightly second movement scherzo, and the heaviness of heart that Suzuki brought to the third movement made it most moving.

The quiet strains of Luther’s hymn, played with beautiful serenity by Evgueni Brokmiller (flute) brought in the final movement. This developed elegantly through Mendelssohn’s obligatory fugal sections and ended triumphantly.

This reviewer was present at SSO’s first performance of this symphony in 1979, which I recall was a valiant but spotty affair. How things have progressed since then.

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