Concert review: Love of music of Webern and Schumann indisputable

A Chamber Evening With Webern And Schumann on Friday was the first of two concerts devoted to the music of Anton Webern and Robert Schumann by faculty and students of Yong Siew Toh Conservatory with musicians from the Orchestre des Champs-Elysees (OCE).

No two Austro-Germanic composers could be as different as Schumann (1810-1856) and Webern (1883-1945), although both are considered giants of classical music for different reasons.

Schumann represented the epitome of early Romanticism, whose works fused musical and poetic sensibilities in an indelible way. He died in an asylum for the insane, from syphilis contracted in his unbridled youth. Webern, a disciple of Schoenberg, furthered the cause of atonality and serialism, influencing an entire generation of 20th century composers. He died at the end of World War II after being shot by an American soldier who had mistaken him as a black marketeer.

Schumann's congenial Andante & Variations Op.46 opened the concert, in a rarely heard version for two pianos, two cellos and horn. Most of the work came from pianists Ho Kai-Li and Jeong Han Sol, with counterpoint and ornamentation added by cellists Christopher Mui and Mao Cheng Yu. A most interesting aspect was the contribution by OCE's Pierre-Antoine Tremblay who performed on a natural horn (as opposed to French horn), which uses no valves, and how he cooly assembled and disassembled its pieces of coiled brass tubing through the course of the work.

The warmth of Schumann was tempered by the chill of Webern's single-movement Piano Quintet, composed in 1907 under Schoenberg's tutelage. Taking off from Romanticism's last legs, tonality was stretched to its seams with pianist Thomas Hecht and T'ang Quartet's gripping performance filled with angst and nervous tension. After traversing a multitude of dissonances, it finally settled on the reassuring home key of C major.

A return to less rarefied air was Schumann's Three Fantasy Pieces Op.73 for clarinet and piano. OCE clarinettist Nicola Boud's mellow and creamy tone was a pleasure to behold, with pianist Yap Sin Yee's fluid and lyrical accompaniment an equal to match. Its alternating fast and slow movements brought out the best of contrasts from both performers.

After the interval, young conductor Adrian Chiang led nine conservatory students in Webern's Concerto Op.24. This compact work lasting about 10 minutes was a textbook example of tone rows employed in serial music. Basically, a tone row is a sequence of 12 notes in a chromatic scale played without repeating a single note until the row is completed. This apparent randomness added to the mystery of the sounds produced, especially when heard on different wind, string instruments and piano. Chiang and his charges displayed confidence and conviction in this experiment of spatial orientation and tonal colour.

The final work was Schumann's familiar Piano Quintet in E flat major Op.44 with OCE members Marion Larigaudrie (violin) and Catherine Puig (viola) partnering violinist Orest Smovzh, cellist Wang Zihao and pianist Albert Tiu. This was a breezy performance that had everything one could hope for; passion in the opening movement, drama in the march-like slow movement with rapid shifts of mood and emotion through its pages.

The Scherzo's scalic runs were breathtakingly negotiated but it was the finale's grand display of contrapuntal mastery, combining themes from both first and last movements in a heady confluence, that impressed most. The players' love for this music was indisputable, and this was not lost on the audience which readily responded in kind.