Beethoven's ground-breaking Fifth Symphony continues to draw the crowds, going by the packed house at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Friday, with even the choir seats filled, and all this without a superstar soloist performing a famous concerto.
Acclaimed British pianist Martin Roscoe played Ernst von Dohnanyi's Variations On A Nursery Song, an accessible set of variations for piano and orchestra based on the most well-known nursery song of all - "Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman", which most of us would recognise as the tune to Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
Roscoe toyed with the audience and orchestra in the lighter moments of Dohnanyi's writing, but for rest of the piece, he was all business, delivering excellent tone and a dynamic range that belied his unassuming demeanour. The 11 variations present formidable technical challenges to the soloist, but Roscoe was more than up to them. What was most impressive was his ability to make every variation musical, without resorting to excessive dramatics.
Dohnanyi's orchestration is as colourful as the piano part, making full use of the percussion section for drama, and throwing in a fugue for good measure. Veteran conductor Gunther Herbig directed a spirited accompaniment, complementing Roscoe well. The Dohnanyi Variations may not be a familiar work to many in the audience, but Roscoe's impeccable musicianship made the music sound familiar and thoroughly enjoyable.
Herbig used a large string section for the opening work, Beethoven's Loenore Overture No. 3. However, it is the winds that stood out, and for the wrong reason - the otherwise well-played overture was marred by a succession of lapses in intonation from bassoon, trombones and off-stage trumpet solo.
A smaller ensemble, and the customary rotation of SSO wind principals in the second half seemed to do the trick to tighten up ensemble work in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Although the orchestra lacked the ultimate finesse heard recently under conductors Neeme Jarvi and Jan Pascal Tortelier, Herbig brought bags of passion to the performance, injecting dramatic crescendos and directing stirring fortissimos.
Herbig chose comfortable tempos, giving the numerous orchestral solo parts time to breathe and phrase the passages. In the slow second movement, however, it felt as if every soloist was allowed a slightly different tempo, and the pulse of the slow "fate" motif became indistinct in parts.
The wind section in the symphony sounded quite different from that in the overture - well balanced and in good tune. String remained strong from top to bottom, although Herbig's attempt to create a very quiet pianissimo in the third movement led to a few moments when audibility was an issue.
There was no such problem as the movement melded into the blazing final movement, when one could see conductor and musicians giving their all to take this magnificent work to a sterling finale.