BRAHMS’ PIANO QUARTET
Singapore Symphony Orchestra,
Yu Long – conductor, Melvyn Tan – piano
Esplanade Concert Hall
The programme for this Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) concert was as classic as they come - a Mozart overture, a Beethoven piano concerto and a Brahms symphony, of sorts - with Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan and guest conductor Yu Long, the foremost Chinese conductor in classical music today.
Mozart's Overture to Don Giovanni has a powerful, slow opening with a syncopated motif in minor key, which transitions into a brilliant fast section in major key. It was performed with a larger ensemble that is the norm for Mozart these days.
Yu's concise baton strokes and crisp tempos brought tight, tuneful playing by the SSO, though some parts sounded more robust than ideal.
Tan has received much acclaim for his recording of the complete Beethoven concertos, which he performed on fortepiano. On this occasion he performed the Third Piano Concerto on a modern grand piano, in a performance of equal mastery.
Sometimes mercurial when it comes to tempos, this evening saw Tan playing with unusual steadfastness, but without any loss of his usual expressiveness.
He performed with great sensitivity, and his exceptional range of touch and supremely fluid runs in the third movement were a delight. Yu and the orchestra accompanied tidily, with excellent bassoon and flute playing in the slow movement. It was a impressive, polished performance, even if less adventurous than we have heard from Tan in recent years.
Despite its title, the banner Brahms Piano Quartet on the programme was neither a quartet for piano and three strings, nor directly composed by Brahms. Instead, it was Arnold Schoenberg's orchestration of Brahms' celebrated piano quartet, dubbed Brahms' Fifth Symphony.
From the first notes to final chords, Yu directed a highly disciplined performance from the orchestra. Woodwinds were in particularly good form and the violins in fine fettle. Schoenberg wrote some virtuosic passages that were beyond what Brahms ever included in his symphonies, and these were well handled by the orchestra's musicians.
The opening movement reprises the scale and grandeur of the massive passacaglia from the final movement Brahms' Fourth Symphony. Subsequent movements bore the hallmarks of Brahm's symphonic style, even where Schoenberg calls on instruments that Brahms never used in his symphonies.
There is little doubt that Schoenberg intended his work to sound "Brahmsian", and this is where Yu's approach to orchestral balance and articulation was a disappointment. "Warmth" is a term that appears repeatedly in the programme notes, but there were only fleeting moments of the warmth and geniality one treasures in later works by Brahms.
The final movement, while showing off great conducting and orchestral technique, took on an edgy timbre, where a huge wall of sound would have been welcome. This was a case of a strong performance that failed to warm the heart.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.