Refined Mozart and Impressive Mahler with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Pianist Haochen Zhang

SingaporeSingapore Mozart, Mahler: Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Lan Shui (conductor), Zhang Haochen (piano), Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore, 2.12.2016. (RP)

Haochen Zhang © Benjamin Ealovega
Haochen Zhang © Benjamin Ealovega

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor K.466
Mahler – Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor is one of his most famous works, particularly admired by Beethoven, and his only piano concerto that was regularly performed throughout the nineteenth century. The composer himself played the solo part at its premiere in Vienna on 11 February 1785. It is a work of dark, intense beauty, qualities that were delineated and amplified in a controlled, measured performance by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) under the baton of its Music Director, Lan Shui, with Shanghai-born pianist Haochen Zhang as soloist. In many regards, it was the equivalent of an exceptionally high-level musical conversation between particularly well-matched partners.

Zhang was the Gold Medalist/First Prize winner of the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009. He is one of the elite group of Chinese pianists whose talents were nurtured by Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music, a group that includes Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Ran Jia. An introspective, almost shy performer, Zhang eschews showmanship and relies on elegance and grace, combined with a formidable technique that impresses all the more for its subtlety and refinement. This concerto is noted for its agitated and syncopated passages, and there Shui and the SSO did not disappoint. It was, however, Zhang’s execution of the more lyrical passages, particularly the cadenza of the first movement and the graceful opening measures of the Romance that follows, which were most memorable.

For his sole encore, Zhang pulled out Mozart’s ‘Rondo alla Turca’. Rather than wow with manual dexterity, he focused on the more subtle contours of the piece. It was like hearing it afresh as he caressed various passages with subtle tempo changes and delicate dynamic shadings. In the final measures, he proved that he could make his fingers fly across a keyboard as fast as anyone while making a magnificent noise. It was all the more awe inspiring as it showed the remarkable breadth of his artistry.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. In this work the composer broke with relying primarily on vocal music and folk tunes for inspiration, and began to emphasize orchestral sonorities in his symphonic works. There was no doubt that the SSO would provide excitement and grandiose climaxes in a piece as dramatic as this. What was impressive, however, was the refined scope and scale of Shui’s concept of the work. Some of the most rewarding passages were the softer ones where the orchestra played with a shimmering transparency and Shui shaped exquisite phrases.

In the Scherzo, the silent pizzicato passage for strings and woodwinds was as light as air and segued perfectly into the next section, where the strings return to their normal mode of bowing. Mahler’s marking for the famous Adagietto, which include espressivo, seelenvoll (‘soulful’) and mit innigster Empfindung (‘with the most heartfelt sentiment’), is scored for strings and harp – a moment of repose amidst the titanic forces employed in the rest of the work. Shui sculpted exquisitely beautiful and achingly poignant music, with the Adagietto’s final measures truly capturing that sense of spiritual repose that only Mahler could create, and so few performers can achieve.

The symphony opens with the solo trumpet playing a melody from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, immediately followed by the crash of cymbals. Jon Paul Dante, the SSO’s Principal Trumpet, was superb throughout and was rewarded with an outburst of applause when afforded a solo bow. The flamboyant, synchronized cymbal playing – at times three at once – provided both aural and visual excitement. Among the many other fine solos, those of Principal Horn Han Chang Chou stood out, both physically, as he was in fact standing, and musically for the rich and brilliant tones that he produced. The SSO is not the perfect Mahler orchestra, as the depth and breadth of its sound is not on par with that of the fabled orchestras long associated with this music. Nonetheless, this was a beautiful, moving, at times thrilling performance. The thunderous ovation that rained down on Shui from audience and orchestra alike was richly deserved.

Rick Perdian

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