Wednesday, 24 May 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, May 2017)

MOSZKOWSKI Piano Concerto in B minor
SCHULZ-EVLER Russian Rhapsody
BBC Scottish Symphony / Vladimir Kiradjiev
Hyperion 68109 / ****1/2

For almost 140 years, it was thought that Polish pianist-composer Moritz Moszkowski (1854-1925) composed only one piano concerto, the popular showpiece in E major. Now it has a companion, the impressive B minor concerto composed in 1874. With four movements and playing for 54 minutes, it was for a time the world's longest piano concerto, outlasting even Brahms' Second Concerto.

Dedicated to Franz Liszt and premiered in 1875 (Berlin), it was rediscovered in 2008 (Paris) and heard again in 2014 (Warsaw).  It opens with strains of seriousness and foreboding, but gradually relents as Moszkowski's penchant for charm and congeniality takes over. For a teenaged composer, there are pages of over-statement but it makes up with confidence, exuberance and scintillating playing.

Bulgarian pianist Ludmil Angelov, who reintroduced the work to modern audiences, gives a totally convincing premiere recording that should win it new friends. He does the same for the Russian Rhapsody by Adolf Schulz-Evler, composer of the notorious finger-buster Arabesques On The Beautiful Blue Danube. For those tired of the umpteenth Rachmaninov piano concerto recording, here are the much needed tonics.   

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

DREAMS OF HOMELAND / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (21 May 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 23 May 2017 with the title "Melodic dreams of home".

Many orchestral concerts are sold on the strength of guest soloists presented, but seldom has one concert been so dominated by a single figure such as this. Suzhou native Zhang Wei Liang, one of the world's great dizi masters, performed almost every minute of this two-hour long concert.

He was obviously taking a well-needed breather when the concert conducted by Yeh Tsung began with Zhao Ji Ping's Homeland Nostalgia, a movement from the orchestral suite Silk Road Melody. The impressionistic piece with Debussyan echoes dwelled on several Cantonese melodies before quietly alluding to the well-known tune Colourful Clouds Chasing The Moon

Then the marathon began, with Zhang performing his own Tears Of Flowers. Based on Suzhou pingtan, an intimate form of chamber music, Zhang crafted a deep and throaty timbre from the dadizi (a low-pitched flute), rich in vibrato and full of atmosphere. The rhapsodic work ambled from a slow and ruminative beginning before blazing to a spectacular fast close.

This form also dictated Zhou Song Ting and Cao Xing's The Spring Orchid, where Zhang's qudi held sway as a Kun Opera melody was subjected to phantasmagorical flight of fancy. While the instrument simulated nuances and inflexions of the human voice, it basked in an extended cadenza which was reminiscent of the dizzying flight of a humming bird. The technique of circular breathing ensured that streams of notes piled on in a relentless manner, and the audience could be excused for feeling breathless on his behalf.

The World Premiere of Cui Quan's Southern Wind was another excellent study in breath control, its indolent strains filled with trills and tremolos which Zhang handled with striking aplomb. This very pleasant work had a contemporary feel and is a welcome addition to the expanding dizi repertoire.

The most modern-sounding work was Chen Qigang's San Xiao (Three Laughs) which featured just four players: Zhang on shakuhachi and dizi, with Yu Jia (pipa), Xu Hui (guzheng) and Huang Gui Fang (sanxian). Each instrument had extremely difficult parts, their individual spiels being abstract rather than literal expressions on the subject on humour. The incessant pace abated with a folk-like dizi melody which had a serene and calming effect on the proceedings.

The evening's final work was Zhang's double dizi concerto entitled Dreams Of Homeland. Its four movements were a evocation of nostalgia, reflecting on childhood and youth in Jiangnan (the region south of the Yangtze). Zhang was partnered by his former student Zeng Zhi, now a SCO member, and the duo was nigh inseparable.

Interplay between both players was excellent, from the gentler and congenial opening movement, hurdling the obstacles of the rhythmic and scherzo-like Joy Of Homeland, right down to the vigourous dance of the quickfire finale Journey To Homeland. Very loud cheers yielded two encores: the lively Xiao Fang Liu (Little Cowboy) accompanied by orchestra, and the solo Liang Xiao (Beautiful Evening), which made for the perfect conclusion.  

Monday, 22 May 2017

DONIZETTI'S L'ELISIR D'AMORE / Singapore Lyric Opera / Review

Singapore Lyric Opera
Esplanade Theatre
Friday (19 May 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 May 2017 with the title "Sparkling comic opera charms".

It was a bold move by the Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) to mount a production outside of the usual canon of Verdi and Puccini operas. Although Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love) is not altogether unfamiliar (it was last produced here by New Opera Singapore in 2012), opening night of the Italian bel canto classic was unfortunately greeted by a house with many empty seats.

However, this new production directed by veteran Tom Hawkes was a light and sparkling affair true to the spirit of the comic opera. Its plot was simple. Village simpleton Nemorino (sung by Malaysian tenor Kee Loi Seng, reprising the same role in 2012) is enamoured of the confident and well-heeled Adina (Australian soprano Elena Xanthoudakis), and he thinks the elixir peddled by the smarmy quack Dulcamara (Singaporean baritone Martin Ng) will work wonders.

The contemporary setting at a seaside resort resembling Miami's South Beach was a nice touch with Justin Hill's atmospheric set, populated by the incessant vivacity of the SLO Chorus and Children's  Choir in Moe Kassim's pleasing costumes. It all made for a very satisfying background for the farce to unfold. 

A large part may be how a woman of Adina's stature comes to choose between suitors like the hangdog Nemorino and vainglorious military man Belcore (Korean baritone Song Kee Chang). But true love does these things to people, and Xanthoudakis' Adina was both a sympathatic and vulnerable portrayal.

The chemistry between her and the always-cowed Nemorino was somewhat uneasy even at the opera's happy end. Kee had his moments, not least in the hit aria Una furtiva lagrima, which rang bright and clear. He was also the centre of comedy when besieged by all the women after downing a second bottle of bordeaux. He thinks the elixir has worked, but the truth is: they all know of his unexpected coming to wealth and have begun texting with their handphones. 

Coming close to stealing the whole show was Ng's Dulcamara, whose mountebank manners and outrageous swagger (accompanied by a bevy of blonde nurses no less) made him one of the most pleasant “villains” around.

Also significant was a role of mezzo-soprano Jade Tan as the knowing Giannetta, a not so innocent high society girl, in a memorable SLO debut. Just to complete the cast, the matinee on Sunday would feature a younger main nucleus with Teo Kai Xin (as Adina), Jonathan Charles Tay (Nemorino) and Alvin Tan (Belcore).  

The SLO Orchestra conducted by Joshua Kangming Tan was generally excellent from the opening Prelude and all through the ensemble work, sensitive enough not to overwhelm the singers. Repetiteur Aloysius Foong ably provided piano accompaniment, while Yap Zi Qi's bassoon and Eilidh McRae's harp did the honours for Nemorino's hit aria. 

Despite decreased annual funding, the SLO still puts on a good show albeit once a year. Can one hope for next year's ambitious offering of Verdi's Aida to be no less of a hit?

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, May 2017)

IVES Orchestral Works Vol.2
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Chandos 5163 / *****

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was a pioneer among American composers. His fiercely individual and independent nature led him away from a predominantly Euro-centric school of composition into new worlds of sonority, paving the way for 20th century American modernism. This disc houses the major orchestral works outside of his four numbered symphonies.

New England Holidays, sometimes performed as a 4-movement symphony, comprises separate orchestral pieces commemorating red-letter days of the American calendar. Washington's Birthday, Decoration Day, The Fourth Of July, Thanksgiving and Forefather's Day are represented, each showcasing a trademark of his: the use of popular songs and hymns often raucously mixed within general orchestral mayhem. 

The inclusion of unusual instruments such as the Jew's harp and juxtaposition of clashing ensembles, each playing different melodies in different keys, was another hallmark.

The excellent Melbourne Symphony led by Sir Andrew Davis, brilliantly recorded, also serves a treat in Three Places In New England, another three-movement “symphony” with atmospheric and impressionist echoes. 

The two shorter companion “contemplations”, the evocative Central Park In The Dark and the mystery of The Unanswered Question, complete this impressive collection.    

Monday, 15 May 2017

A KISS FROM MUM / Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre
Saturday (13 May 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 May 2017 with the title "Tribute to Mum hits high notes".

Mother's Day is a fixture that probably benefits florists, gift-shops and restaurants most, more than the very people whom that entity was meant to celebrate. However cynical one might be, few would argue that the Singapore Chinese Orchestra has honed its annual Mother's Day Concert programme to a fine art. Tickets to all three of its Mother's Day Concerts held at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre spanking new auditorium had long been sold out.

SCO Resident Conductor Quek Ling Kiong was in his element as maestro and cheerleader-in-chief in the matinee attended mostly by senior citizens. The first half was wholly instrumental, opening with Gu Guan Ren's The Lovable Rose. This and Phang Kok Jun's A Kiss From Mum were based on pre-existing melodies, and both opened with fine dizi and gaohu solos from Yin Zhi Yang and concertmaster Li Bao Shun respectively.

There were two concertante works featuring SCO rank-and-file musicians as soloists. Shen Qin's erhu starred in Chen Yao Xing's A Song Dedicated To Mother, which began heartfelt and melancholic but took on lively strides by its conclusion.

Xu Hui on guzheng was more of an obbligato presence in Wang Jue's San Zi Jing (Three Character Classic), which had orchestra members chanting its familiar words which also exhorted mothers' role in moulding their children's moral compass. While Confucian in intention, the work took on a martial stance with movie-like music as it progressed.

The concert's second half was more contemporary and popular in appeal. Wang Jue's Medley of Sichuan Folksongs was performed by the 13-member SCO Pop Music Ensemble, which included drum-set, bongos and electric bass guitar alongside traditional instruments. One has not lived until one has heard Kangding Love Song in the rhythm of Dave Brubeck's Take Five.

The concert's highlight had to be the appearances of pop singers Lee Peifen and Hao Hao in the segment entitled I Really Love You – Songs Dedicated To Mothers. They enlivened the proceedings with youthful spunk, dialect-speaking and quickfire repartee with conductor Quek. The audience lapped it all up with keen relish.

Both had two solo songs each, in Mandarin and Hokkien. The locally-based Li, dressed in gaudy flower-themed gowns, was a livewire throughout. Her contrasted emotions in Mum in the Dream and Ka Ao (Wife) were immediately engaging. The Taiwanese Hao, sporting navy blue hair, was at home in Ah Ma Ei Wei (Grandmother's Words) and Han Jiang Xue (Frosty River Snow). For the latter, he sang falsetto, did a spot of female impersonation, and had listeners in stitches.

Together, the dynamic duo performed three songs including I Really Love You (mixing Cantonese and Mandarin) and finished off with Liang Wern Fook's xinyao classic Old Clothes Are Better Than New Ones. No further encouragement was needed for an encore, with Yang Yao Dong's catchy Mothers Of The World Are The Same clapped along by the full-house.     

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

CD Review (The Straits Times, May 2017)

  Sony Classical 88875192982 / ****1/2
  Sony Classical 88985341762 / *****

Lucas Debargue was the young French pianist at the centre of controversy in the 2015 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition when he was shunned by the jury for the top prize, garnering only 4th place in the final standings. His cause celebre was rewarded with these two recital recordings, issued by Sony Classical in quick succession. 

A unique talent far removed from the usual mould of child prodigy and conservatory-trained product, he began the piano at a late age, and received formal tutelage just four years before this unexpected “triumph”.

The first disc is an artist's calling card, filled with competition fodder like Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No.1, Ravel's Gaspard De La Nuit and Chopin's Ballade No.4 dispatched with relative ease. More telling is the extraordinary sensitivity displayed in four varied Scarlatti Sonatas and Grieg's Melody (from Lyric Pieces).

The second disc is a personal manifesto, beginning with utter clarity in Bach's Toccata in C minor and the unexpected choice of Beethoven's early Sonata in D major (Op.10 No.3), with each of its vastly disparate four movements bravely etched out in stone. 

The piece de resistance is Medtner's rarely heard Sonata in F minor (Op.5), where dark vistas and contrapuntal sophistication are melded with an irresistible vividness that is totally absorbing. Here is a name to watch for the future.

Monday, 8 May 2017

DEBUSSY AND DVORAK / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (5 May 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 8 May 2017 with the title "Divine Debussy & Dvorak".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra is presently recording the major orchestral works of Claude Debussy. La Mer, Images, the ballets Jeux and The Toy Box, and several concertante works are already “in the can”. This evening's concert conducted by Music Director Shui Lan offered some of the Frenchman's youthful and rarely performed works.

Marche Ecossaise (Scottish March, 1891) received its Singapore premiere this evening. Better known in its version for piano four hands, its sumptuous orchestration highlighted the orchestra's solo woodwinds to good effect. Rachel Walker (oboe), Elaine Yeo (cor anglais) and Jin Ta (flute) distinguished themselves in this slight but pleasant rhapsody on a Scottish modal theme.

Printemps (1887) was considered Debussy's first “impressionist” work, and its 1913 orchestration by Henri Busser nevertheless adopted the master's imprimatur. Another rustic modal theme was developed through its two movements, from a hushed and hazy beginning, blossoming like a nascent spring into a dance and through to its rousing close. The orchestra's insightful performance should win it many new friends.

Better known and staple of the harp repertoire is Danse sacrée et danse profane (Sacred Dance and Profane Dance), which saw SSO Principal harpist Gulnara Mashurova backed by only strings. One of Debussy most ethereal works, the harp's celestial strains stood out above the sensitive accompaniment, first sounding chaste and formal before breaking out to a freer but no less elegant waltz rhythm. Mashurova's nocturne-like solo encore was just as sublime.

The evening's main draw was Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor with China-born cellist Wang Jian as soloist. Now in his mid-forties, Wang first found fame as the irresistible 10-year-old boy who performed in the end-credits of Isaac Stern's iconic docu-movie From Mao To Mozart. It was also with the Dvorak that he made his SSO debut in 1993.

Enduring through the intervening decades was his deeply felt and instinctual response to what is arguably the greatest cello concerto ever composed. This and his gorgeously-hewn tone, fully voiced, plain-speaking yet so filled with vitality, made for another memorable performance.

What has been shed was that exuberance of youth. In its place was an unspoken yet palpable sadness, possibly borne of world-weariness that permeated its three movements. This is work of maturity which received its due, through the 1st movement's upheavals, the slow movement's plaintive song and the finale's resolute denouement.

The orchestral partnership was not as sharp as in the SSO's live recording with Qin Li-Wei on Decca Records, and there were occasional intonation issues with the French horns. Nevertheless it was still a gripping reading, culminating in the glorious shared passage with Wang and concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich's violin towards the end.

For encores, Wang starred in Dvorak's Song To The Moon (from the opera Rusalka) accompanied by full orchestra, before closing with a Chinese melody on his own. The latter's title Liang Xiao (Beautiful Evening) was a perfect summation of the two-and-a-half hours that had so eventfully passed.     

Saturday, 6 May 2017


Victoria Concert Hall
Thursday (4 May 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 May 2017 with the title "Playing Bach with elegance".

Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is one of the planet's great Bach interpreters, and so she was expected to perform Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard works, as she did in her previous recitals here. She had played the Goldberg Variations (2001) and The Well-Tempered Clavier (2008) in the same venue to ecstatic acclaim. This time, two of Bach's six Partitas got an airing.

Playing Bach on a modern piano is no longer a contentious issue. That pianists as diverse as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Andras Schiff and Angela Hewitt could be equally persuasive in their own way showed that there is no single prescribed method of showcasing the great German's music. Hewitt's Bach is elegant and tasteful, articulated with freshness and vitality. She proved it yet again, bringing out a rich, pearly tone on a Fazioli grand piano specially flown in from Italy.

The multi-movement Partitas were originally designated as keyboard exercises, but these handily brought together series of antique dances offering an unending source of invention for the performer to revel in.

The short and slender First Partita in B flat major made stark contrasts with the monumental Fourth Partita in D major. Hewitt chose to play all the repeats, with some ornamentation – effective and never overdone – to vary the course. The fast dances were unerring in detail while time stood still in the slow and ruminative Sarabandes.

Then it had to happen at a quiet and meditative point of the Fourth Partita. A toddler seated on his mother's lap in the front row threw a tantrum, shouting, “I wanna go home!”. Hauled out United Airlines-style and yelling all the way to the exit, the magic of the moment had been irreparably sullied.

While one does not expect outright bans on children in concerts, parents should at least exercise commonsense in choosing suitable concerts for their juveniles' ages. Toddlers simply do not belong outside of Babies Proms. To Hewitt's credit, she never flinched, completed the Sarabande before launching into the fugal Gigue with stunning aplomb.

Never satisfied to be type-cast as merely a Bach specialist, the balance of Hewitt's recital offered yet further contrasts. In five Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, the piano was imaginatively transformed to strumming guitars, hunting horns and a military band with drums and fifes, with myriad colours and shades to match.

The three movements of Ravel's Sonatine combined to varying degrees classical restraint, French impressionism and Belle Epoque aesthetics. The transition from the staid Minuet rhythm of the slow movement to the finale's brilliant whirlwind also summed up in a nutshell the recital's sense of variety.

And what about the playful final number in Chabrier's Bourree Fantasque? It was a joyous return to the recital's earlier dance theme, this time with French modal folk influences and dancehall gaieties thrown into the mix. Very loud applause yielded two sublime encores. First, Debussy's Clair de lune and it was back to Bach in the Aria from the Goldberg Variations.  

Thursday, 4 May 2017


Esplanade Concert Hall
Monday (1 May 2017)

The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra's third visit to Singapore (the previous occasions were in 1983 and 1999) was part of its tour to mark the 20th anniversary of the former Crown Colony's return to China, where it retains a Special Administrative Region status. The orchestra turned professional in 1973-74, and thus has a five year head start over the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. 

We Singaporeans have a sort of unspoken rivalry with Hongkongers over such things as economy, standard of living, food and shopping, and whether we have a world-class transport system (they do, we don't) et cetera.  In a way, this rivalry even extends to our orchestras, and here was a chance for Hong Kong to parade its musical crown jewel for the first time at the Esplanade.

By the way, Hong Kong's own Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, home of the HKPO, came up during the early 1980s, thus establishing yet another head start (this time of some 20 years) over Singapore. Let's not even discuss about international piano competitions, of which HK has held four editions since 2005, to our big fat zero (OK, we do have one really good international violin competition, but just one edition so far). One thing which Singapore does not have, and which the City of New York would soon gain, in 2018 is the HKPO Music Director Jaap van Zweden. He was what made the difference between the HKPO of today and the orchestra that was last heard at Victoria Concert Hall in 1999.

The Esplanade Concert Hall has flattering acoustics but that was not what that made the first work of the HKPO's concert resound with a glittering sheen and glow. Hong Kong composer Fung Lam's Quintessence, composed in 2014 for the orchestra's 40th anniversary, was not one of those atonal nightmares which modern orchestras trot out on occasion and pretend to delight in.

A 10-minute single-movement concerto for orchestra, it provided a display of what each section could achieve – seperately and together - in the most virtuosic manner possible. There were extremes in dynamics, such as high-pitched strings and tingling percussion pitted against growling basses, answered with brassy interjections and chorales. Cor anglais, flute and muted trumpets all had their moments. Never static and always eventful, it kept the ears (and the performers) fully engaged through the mounting tension to its abrupt close.

That was a palate cleanser that led uncharacteristically to Mozart's Violin Concerto No.4, not a typical concert showpiece, which saw a welcome return of Sichuan violinist Ning Feng, former winner of the Paganini International Violin Competition in Genoa. The pared-down forces provided exquisitely sensitive accompaniment to Feng, who wisely chose not to flex his Paganinian prowess, but played along like a consummate chamber musician. He joined the orchestra's strings in the tuttis, and soon beautifully carved a path in his solo role, which was tasteful and fully in the spirit of the music.

His tone was sweet, but never cloying or overpowering. Only in the solo cadenzas did a sense of romanticism come into the picture, but that was never overdone. The slow movement was a delight, the restraint coming naturally rather than forced, and the Rondo finale another show of grace and courtliness, with no little prettiness in the execution. The fire-breathing aspect of Feng's musicianship came in the encore, where he obliged in Paganini's Caprice No.7 in A minor, which was simply dazzling. There seemed to be a palpable sense of relief that his natural instinct of showmanship had not gone unexploited.   

The main work was Mahler's First Symphony, just performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Robert Spano) at the same venue just less than two weeks ago. Unfortunately, I was not present and thus no basis of comparison could be made. While the SSO's show was said to be attended by a small house, it was filled to the rafters (including gallery seats sold) for the Hongkongers. They could not possibly disappoint.

Conductor Jaap van Zweden is not a big man by physical stature, and he has an Alberich-like stoop that appears ungainly at first, but in everything else he bestrode the podium like the titan of the symphony's title. The orchestra responded magnificently, with the softest hush in the symphony's opening, a rapt depiction of dawn which gradually unfurled with the nascent sun's rays beaming in. Offstage trumpets were excellent, and so it gradually led to the wayfarer's song of the movement proper. It is the attention to detail, rather than the volume of sound expended, which made this performance something touching and memorable.

The striding Ländler of the second movement was taken at a good lick, and here there was no fear of sounding rustic. All too often, the need to come across as immaculate and polished gets in the way of the heart of the music, but there was no fear of this here. Similarly, in the third movement's Funeral March, the klezmer-like episodes were more unbuttoned, preferable to the spick and span of Rattle's Berlin forces in their view of the same symphony here in 2010.

If one wanted to be swept away by the finale's fury, then consider wish granted. Two taps of the drum led directly into the tumultuous “cry of the wounded heart”, which was as passionate as one could have hoped for. The brass was on top form, not least the 8 French horns and associates who raised their bells at the final stand for a grandstanding finish. That was not all in this 20-minute long movement which had its share of reflective moments, and it were in these that Zweden brought out playing of the greatest definition. When themes for earlier movements were relived, the palpable sense of nostalgia was all pervasive, making the symphony's final triumph all the more poignant.

The standing ovation was overwhelming and spontaneous on the first curtain call, with individuals and sections of the orchestra taking their bows. And the encore, the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner's Die Walküre, brilliantly delivered, was yet another subtle (or maybe not too subtle) reminder of something that Singapore has yet to accomplish – to mount its own Ring Cycle.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic is a class act, and a repeat visit with Jaap van Zweden is imperative. 

All photographs courtesy of 
Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.