Chinese trio's concert an onslaught on the senses

REVIEW / CONCERT

VISITING ARTIST SERIES - RUC TRIO

Fang Zhang (piano), Cheng Yawei (violin), Ying Wang (cello)

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra Hall Wednesday

The trio's name derives from the Renmin University of China (RUC) in Beijing, where all three members serve on the faculty of the School of Arts.

Perhaps the RUC School of Arts possesses an unusually large auditorium, or maybe these three players spend much of their time playing in noisy environments, but it seemed that their sole objective was to push out as much sound as they could from their instruments.

Mendelssohn's First Piano Trio is usually a graceful, elegant work. Not here.

The outer movements had all the grace of a busy railway station, while any hint of elegance in the lyrical second was smothered by the sheer volume of the playing. The third movement came across more like the thunder of stampeding elephants than the fairy-like skittishness of a classic Mendelssohn Scherzo.

If the trio had seemed completely out of the loop with the Mendelssohn, it was closer to it with Shostakovich's Second Piano Trio.

Written to mourn the loss of a close friend, the music's sense of tragedy was strongly evoked. Ying Wang's opening high cello solo was full of strain and tension, catching the spirit of Shostakovich's writing well.

Equally effective were the pulsating folk-dance rhythms, which provided bitter irony later in the work. Spurred on by violinist Cheng Yawei's single-minded determination not to let things wallow in self-pity, pianist Fang Zhang - no shrinking violet in this ensemble - provided the defining feature with his compulsive rhythmic urgency.

In both of these standards of the piano trio repertory, the trio went in with all guns blazing, taking no hostages and brutally stamping out any sign of contemplative thought.

For the final piece in the programme, this was exactly the approach needed and the musicians brought a decidedly incoherent piece of writing very much to life.

Fang Dongqing has written scores for film and television and it was shortly after completing one of these in 2013 (Meng's Palace) that he composed Drunken Masters.

As the title suggests, this is a rowdy romp through a series of unconnected episodes which seem to owe their origins to the kind of scenes familiar to all watchers of Chinese television dramas.

Comprising several short, highly descriptive and dramatic outbursts, Fang's work is not so much a continuous whole as a series of set-piece gestures, each of which the trio delivered with great gusto and aplomb.

In a concert which seemed to be primarily concerned with playing lots of notes as fast and loud as humanly possible, it was probably just as well that the audience - some of whom were certainly feeling rather battered and bruised after this sustained onslaught - was spared an encore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2017, with the headline 'Chinese trio's concert an onslaught on the senses'. Print Edition | Subscribe