Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (25 May 2012)

This review was published by The Straits Times on 28 May 2012 with the title "Slick string-playing driven by passion".

It seemed only a while ago when Yuri Bashmet and the Moscow Soloists last performed here. That was in 2009 during the Singapore Arts Festival. That time of year has come again, hence a sense of déjà vu greeted this crack Russian chamber ensemble’s return on its 20th anniversary Asian tour, presented by the Russian energy giant Gazprom. Playing mostly music from the classical and early Romantic periods, the much more accessible programme spelt close to a full house.

The ensemble’s two decades of existence meant that its players have an instinctual response to each other’s musicianship, and this chemistry was immediately felt in opening Mozart Divertimento in D major (K.136). Crisp yet detailed, the music breezed through with a lightness and freshness that was disarming.

The music of Italians Rossini and Paganini was united by a penchant for smooth bel canto melodies, all the rage during the early 19thcentury. There were darker shades that coloured the slow movement of Rossini’s Third String Sonata, but it was the cheery final Theme and Variations, highlighting double bass and cello solos, that delighted most.

The audience held its collective breath when Bashmet, hailed as the world’s greatest violist, returned with his 1758 Paolo Testore viola. Everyone knows a few violist jokes, but none of these apply to Bashmet, whose full-bodied sonority and impeccable intonation held sway in Paganini’s Concertino in A minor. This was a reconstruction of a string quartet in three movements with an outsized viola part for once turning the tables on the violins.    

“Take that!” the unashamedly violist in a glamorous starring role seemed to be intimating. It was all too brief, and Stravinsky’s rustic Russian Song (from the one-act comic opera Mavra), where the viola drolly hams up the part of Parasha, came across like a quaint little encore.

The largest work was Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir De Florence, expanded from the original string sextet form. Its Italianate sunshine, a stark contrast to the Russian’s usual moroseness, shone through with utmost warmth and clarity. The evenness and homogeneity of the strings sounded all the more impressive when achieved at bounding high speeds for the first, third and final movements. It was not just slickness or facility, but the driving passion that made this performance truly exciting.     

The ensuing cheers ensured several encores, first Schnittke’s teasing Polkaand three variations on Happy Birthday, in the styles of a Viennese waltz, Piazzolla tango and the Hungarian gypsy czardas. Play it again, Yuri!