Concert review: Steven Isserlis and the SSO bring out all the shades of Shostakovich

This Singapore Symphony Orchestra season has seen its share of gala concerts featuring celebrity soloists and with ticket prices to match. Although the renowned British cellist Steven Isserlis was not accorded gala status, his appearance in Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Thursday, had every bit of glitz and glamour. It could be said that the capacity house, evidenced by long lines at the box office, had been well served.

The more popular of Shostakovich's two cello concertos is now firmly established among the greats of 20th century concerto repertoire. No one should claim to fear its modernisms or dissonances because of the Russian composer's unambiguous use of tonality and much-employed wit. The four-note motif that is the foundation of its opening movement was trenchantly stated by Isserlis, and echoed by principal horn player Han Chang Chou's excellent solos.

In the rapidfire cut and thrust of the work, both soloist and orchestra were timed to perfection under music director Shui Lan's direction. As Isserlis' bow grittily dug into his cello's strings, bringing out the rawness of the music in its statement of socialist realism, the orchestra responded in kind with a mocking sarcasm that was totally apt. There was tenderness in the lightly-scored slow movement, but the song of Isserlis was more of a lament, tinged with sorrow and bitterness.

The orchestra fell silent for the extended cadenza that followed, and one could hear a pin drop. Unfortunately Isserlis' plaint had the unwanted intrusion of audible voices emanating from an usher's earpiece. Why were people even talking when the music is taking place? This is one area which Esplanade as a premier concert venue needs to address: either silence the earpiece, remove the oblivious usher, or both.

The cadenza was a crescendo that built up to an impassioned head of steam, launching into the burlesque of the finale. Here both cello and orchestra jostled for supremacy in a grotesque tug-of-war before the bold restatement of the first movement's motif, now delivered with a crushing finality. With typical irony, Isserlis jested about playing something "energetic", and Prokofiev's naively optimistic March For Children made for a delightful encore.

The second half belonged to Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, better known as his "Pathetique". This nickname does not refer to the common use of the word "pathetic", but rather the state of inducing pathos, often equated with tragedy. In that sense, this concert had two mirroring works of great pathos. The raucous rawness of Shostakovich was a foil for the svelte, fatal elegance of Tchaikovsky.

Overstatement could either enhance or undermine Tchaikovsky's message, so conductor Shui's approach kept mostly (and safely) to the middle of the road. His tempos were on a brisk side and thus could not be accused of wallowing in self-pity. One waited for the catharsis but it did not always appear when expected. There was a manic edge to the first movement's fugato which did not disappoint, balanced by the bittersweet waltz of the second movement.

The rumble-tumble Scherzo was rowdily impressive, and credit to this audience for not wildly applauding as if the work had ended with it. This was merely the prelude to the finale's veil of tears, which rose to an anguished high before descending into a bottomless abyss. This last bit showed the orchestra's maturity as it plumbed the depths, diminishing in volume with such nuanced finesse to absolute silence. Tchaikovsky had predicted his own death with this, and that eventuality came one week after the work's premiere.

There was a long and precious moment of total quiet before the eruption of applause. This audience, more sophisticated than the usual gala crowd, had understood its message unequivocally. That was a sure sign that listeners too can contribute to the success of a concert.