Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (2 November 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 5 November 2012 with the title "Orchestral colours in four moods".

Some 33 years ago, this reviewer heard a two-dollar pirated cassette recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concertoby Gary Graffman and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The romantic, opulent and heart-wrenching music, rendered in an honest-to-goodness yet viscerally thrilling performance, proved to be a life-changing event. The tape was played so often that the reel soon unravelled, chewed up and spat out by the player’s mechanism. In short, I was hooked.

Cassette tapes have gone the way of the typewriter, but the octogenarian Graffman still goes strong as a pedagogue. His students at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute have included Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and this evening’s soloist Zhang Haochen. Zhang, the first Chinese pianist to win First Prize at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009, relived many of those cherished moments in the very same concerto.

Zhang does not come across as a barnstorming pianist, but rather a thinker who instinctively knows the tide, ebb and flow of the music, and how to build up to the big moment. The opening chords gave a clue, beginning with a sigh and closing with a roar. Unfailingly musical, he breathed the same air as the orchestra, never surging unimpeded but always listening to his partners.

The second movement brought out these qualities best, playing the ever-sensitive accompanist as flautist Evgueni Brokmiller and clarinettist Li Xin sang out their solos. And when his turn came, Zhang accepted the gauntlet gratefully, his impeccable technique ever in service of the music. The finale’s tricky interplay of finger-twisting virtuosity and arch-lyricism fell easily within his hands, as pianist and orchestra raced to an exciting photo-finish.

Ever modest and self-effacing, his encore of Debussy’s little prelude The Girl With The Flaxen Hair was the perfect antidote to the surfeit of loud notes that came before.

The concert began with Hindemith’s Concert Music For Strings And Brass, its title typical of the 20thcentury German composer’s idea of utility music, compositions crafted for the sake of pedagogy and practice. The dissonance and somewhat astringent themes fell on fertile soil in its two movements, as the orchestra’s brass chorales and busy string counterpoint rang out an enthralling, and even entertaining performance. 

After the Rachmaninov, the audience had significantly thinned in its ranks. Those who left missed an excellent showing of Carl Nielsen’s Second Symphony under the baton of SSO’s Finnish Principal Guest Conductor Okko Kamu. The Dane Nielsen, like his contemporary Sibelius, saw the symphony as his greatest vehicle of musical expression.    

Its four varied movements took the Four Temperaments as their inspirations, beginning with the Choleric, with short tempered and volatile outbursts colouring the first movement. Orchestral colours were on vivid display, even in the Phlegmatic second movement’s leisurely and good natured waltz, aided by a tottering pair of bassoons. A degree of gravitas was injected into the Melancholic, as Brucknerian strings built up to a dead serious and tragic climax.

Even if the joyous outpourings of the Sanguinefinale did not fully dispel the earlier gloom, it was the sheer range of emotions covered in its eventful half-hour that impressed, not least by an orchestra that plays like it really means it.