Friday, 16 June 2017

THE COMPLETE BEETHOVEN SYMPHONIES (II) / The Philharmonic Orchestra / Review

The Philharmonic Orchestra
Esplanade Recital Studio
Wednesday (14 June 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 June 2017 with the title "Satisfying rendition of Beethoven by home-grown orchestra".

Can one actually tire of Beethoven's symphonies? In a word, no. Good performances of his nine symphonies offer an inexhaustible source of inspiration and new insights. So soon after the all-Beethoven concert by the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, The Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) led by Lim Yau held its own in the second of five concerts commemorating its 15th anniversary.

It must not be forgotten that TPO was the first local orchestra to perform the complete Beethoven symphony cycle in Esplanade, way back in 2003. The orchestra, filled with mostly young musicians, is an even better ensemble than it was before. One factor remains constant: the tireless mind and steadfast hands of conductor Lim Yau.

In performing Jonathan del Mar's edition of the symphonies, he keeps in touch with the latest Beethoven performing traditions. There is no portentousness for its own sake, but the brimming vitality and unquenchable passion that the iconoclastic German brought to his music.

Just the declamatory opening chords of the Second and Third Symphonies served as statements of intent, both delivered with an unanimity of purpose. That this was going to be an absorbing evening was never in doubt, as the Haydnesque Second Symphony in D major (1802) was presented with lightness and vigour.

After a well-paced slow introduction, the main meat of the 1st movement was projected with energy and virility, contrasted with the more rustic slow movement and final two fast movements. If only latecomers had not dawdled but settled to their seats in a more decisive manner, that continuous spell would not have been disrupted. Keeping the orchestra, conductor, audience and Beethoven waiting was the height of disrespect.

Even better was the orchestra's performance of the Third Symphony in E flat major (1804), also known as the “Eroica”. The punched-out chords that ushered in its 1st movement were followed by a succession of similar defiant gestures and clenched fists which informed Beethoven's tribute to the memory of a hero (originally Napoleon Bonaparte, but later angrily withdrawn), hence its nickname.

The development to a climax of angst-filled dissonance was a thrilling one. The slow movement's Funeral March was imbued with genuine gravitas, its weighty procession made more poignant with oboist Veda Lin's significant solos. Past its climax, the listener was made sure not to miss the famous four-note Fate motif, uttered by the French horns, that would later famously surface in Fifth Symphony. One should not be too surprised since this movement was also in C minor. 

This continued without a break into a breakneck Scherzo, where the French horn trio of Christopher Shen, Lewis Chong and Luke Lim acquitted themselves well. The finale, a set of variations on a dance from Beethoven's ballet The Creatures Of Prometheus, romped joyously to its final conclusion.

That this concert by a local semi-professional outfit could generate as much enjoyment and satisfaction as last week's Orchestre des Champs-Élysées was an indication how things have progressed.

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