Concert review: The best man won the Singapore International Violin Competition

With the international field of 35 finalists whittled down to three for the grand final at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Wednesday night, expectations were high, and the atmosphere was akin to that of a top sports event.

The top three - Sirena Huang from the United States, and Tseng Yu-Chien and Richard Lin, both from Taiwan - each had to perform a major late Romantic period concerto, accompanied by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Russian-born conductor Vladimir Verbitsky.

There was a niggling worry that the common Taiwanese roots and their musical training in America might bring a uniformity in performance, but while every player shared traits of excellent technique, high precision and an emphasis on sweet tone, their performances were distinct and individual.

Sirena Huang, who was later declared winner of the Paganini performance prize, clearly has ample technique and quite literally strolled through the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. In parts, though, there was a lack of impetus. The opening tempo chosen by Verbitsky felt laboured, but Huang seemed content not to push it. Her sinuous movement on stage was natural enough, but became distracting on occasion.

The tempo for Lin's Brahms violin concerto was more comfortable, and coupled with his steady demeanour, careful articulation and attention to detail, it made for a fluent performance. The SSO accompanied, with particular attention paid to not overpowering the soloists, and Lin was always able to lead from the front. Impressive as his playing was, the second movement needed greater nuance - more varied vibrato, more of the geniality of Brahms to make the concerto outstanding.

Tseng Yu-Chien chose to perform Sibelius' violin concerto - perhaps the work with the highest level of risk for the night, and certainly one that poses great musical challenges. In just his opening three notes, Tseng conveyed an essence of a wintry Scandinavian landscape, over which he breathed fire and drama. More than any of the other competitors, he found the balance between clean technique and passion in performance, belying his reserved mannerism on stage.

Tseng's slow movement was again beautifully judged - calm, introspective but not indulgent. In the final movement he upped the pace and momentum, but was let down by Verbitsky, who seemed stubbornly stuck at a slower tempo.

Lin was awarded the Audience Prize via audience voting, but the Chair of Jury, Qian Zhou from Singapore, expressed a sense of unanimity among the jury in awarding the First Prize to Tseng Yu-Chien, a decision that went down well with the members of the audience who stayed for the announcement and prize-giving.

It will be some time before teachers, friends, aficionados and music critics end their debates on who should or should not have made it to the final three, or who was the very "best" violinist in this competition. Having heard every finalist in the earlier Mozart concerto rounds, Tseng stands out as the most well-rounded and engaging, and a worthy winner of the first instalment of what seems destined to be an important violin competition on the world stage.

stlife@sph.com.sg