Concert Review: SSO plays hellish music with superb control

Less than six months after he was on stage with the SSO, German conductor Gunther Herbig returned, this time with violinist Ray Chen, winner of two major violins competitions - the Queen Elisabeth (2009) and Yehudi Menuhin (2008) competitions when he was about 20 - and two wildly contrasting works.

Chen's chosen work was Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto In E Minor, a perennial favourite, drawing in not just SSO regulars at the Esplanade Concert Hall last Friday, but many students and a noticeable crowd of parents with young children, presumably young aspirants of the violin.

His abundant technical abilities showed in the effervescent work, and he poured his efforts into producing a rich, rounded tone.

The partnership among him, the conductor and the orchestra was good, but not always ideal, with the soloist's attempts to push tempos in the outer movements thwarted by sluggish response, which led to some instability in the finale.

As much as his Mendelssohn was lush and romantic, it smacked of an approach that is on the wane; one that insists on wide, invariant vibrato in every phrase and displaying virtuosity at every opportunity. It is hard not to look back to Leonadis Kavakos’ spell-binding performance of the same work with SSO last year, or to the refreshing approach taken by another young SSO guest violinist, Alina Ibragimova, in her 2011 recording.

Chen has much going for him, but five years after the major competition wins, it seems time that the musician in Ray Chen overtakes the virtuoso.

Herbig took the orchestra through of its sternest tests this year, with Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8, an hour-long reflection on the tragedy and horrors of war, a work that musicologists and commentators describe using such terms as “despairing” and “nightmarish”.

The first movement alone took over 30 minutes, but both conductor and the SSO handled the powerful opening and subsequent episodes of misery, terror and desolation without excess or exaggeration. The second movement is a parody of a war march, where Shostakovich replaces the usual wit of a scherzo with irony. It provided Herbig and the orchestra some respite before embarking on the third movement, with its relentless four note theme, described in the program notes as "some of the most hellish music every written".

Throughout this and the final two movements, the SSO played with superb control. The sounds of the battlefield were like sonic sledgehammers that always maintained their focus.

Despite the brooding nature of the music, this performance was not about gloom, doom and war. While the work ends in quiet resignation with barely a glimmer of life, the overall experience for the audience and orchestra was of drama and emotion, and not depression.

Full credit goes to Herbig for a brilliant reading, and the musicians for their grit and determination to make this a rewarding experience.