Schumann and Shostakovich – A Program that Resonated on Many Levels

SingaporeSingapore  Schumann, Shostakovich: Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Midori (violin), Okko Kamu (conductor), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore, 04.04.2015 (RP)

Schumann, Violin Concerto in D minor, WoO 23
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 in E minor, Op. 93


Schumann’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 share a common bond – survival. The Schumann was composed just three years prior to his death and kept hidden by family and close friends: it was deemed to be an inferior work demonstrating evidence of his fragile mental state. Composed in 1853, it would not receive its premiere until 1937. Schumann died in 1856 with his ranking among the greats already secure, and through a bizarre set of circumstances (a seance was pivotal) his concerto entered the repertoire. The Shostakovich, dating from exactly a century later, was the composer’s first orchestra work completed after the death of Stalin. He had been denounced by Soviet authorities in 1948, performances of his works banned, and his artistic voice all but silenced. Shostakovich would live until 1975 and has come to be regarded as a towering figure in Russian music of the 20th century. These are works that beat the odds. Oblivion was just as likely a fate for both as survival.

Midori is among the handful of violinists, and perhaps one of the rare few with her stature as an artist and popularity, who currently champion the Schumann. That Midori would bring impeccable technique and refined musicianship to bear was never in doubt. It was her collaboration with the soloists of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra that raised this performance to such a high level. Okko Kamu, the SSO’s Principal Guest Conductor, kept a tight leash on the orchestra dynamically. Soloist and orchestra achieved an exquisite pianissimo at the close of the first movement. It was a mere whisper of sound – the stuff of magic. Barring a few rough entrances, the SSO played well.

Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is a powerful work. By the time of its premiere in 1953, the Europe of Schumann’s time was no more, eradicated by two world wars and totalitarian regimes. In this symphony, Shostakovich faces the mid 20th century head on with no holds barred. The horrors and devastation of that era is made brutally clear by Shostakovich, not only at a personal level, but also on behalf of the millions with no voice.

The SSO can always be counted on for excitement when the going gets loud. Hearing the SSO trumpets – in fact, the entire brass section in forte passages –  is a visceral experience, abetted to no small extent by the excellent acoustics of the Esplanade Concert Hall. The Tenth Symphony affords many such opportunities. The first movement begins with a quiet passage for strings alone which progresses through an incessant crescendo, staggering in its intensity, and finally back to quietude. The second movement, which starts off fortissimo, has no less than 50 subsequent crescendos marked in the score. In this performance the effect of all this sound was mostly terrifying, with only the final few minutes of the symphony a glorious and triumphant blaze of sound.

It would do Kamu and the SSO an injustice to only focus on the loud bits. There are moments of quietude throughout the symphony, but soft never meant lovely. The fourth movement in particular has moments of quiet, hollow and haunting as played by the SSO woodwinds. There are numerous extended solos throughout the symphony, and all were expertly played. Place of honor, however, goes to Han Chang Chou, Principal Horn. The third movement calls for not one but twelve repetitions of a Mahler-like horn call. Each rang out with beautiful, ringing tone and authority.

I underestimated the audience. Thinking that Midori was the main draw (the concert was in fact billed as Gala: Midori), I expected empty seats after the interval. That was not the case; even the children in the audience returned for the Shostakovich. And if anything, the applause was more enthusiastic for the Tenth Symphony than for the Schumann. Lesson learned.

Rick Perdian

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