Light-hearted ambiguous finale a teaser

REVIEW / CONCERT

DOHNANYI & SHOSTAKOVICH

VCH Chamber Series

Victoria Concert Hall/Sunday

The Victoria Concert Hall Chamber Series organised by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra often takes out and dusts off interesting corners of chamber repertoire not regularly heard in concert or on disc. This offering of Hungarian and Russian music was no exception.

The Hungarian composers Zoltan Kodaly and Erno Dohnanyi were contemporaries and colleagues. While Kodaly espoused nationalism and revolutionised music education, Dohnanyi made his name as a piano virtuoso. As creators, both were conservatives beside their compatriot Bela Bartok.

The trio of violinist Lillian Wang, violist Tan Wee-Hsin and cellist Chan Wei Shing made no secret that their selection of music by both Hungarians was little more than delightful lollipops. Kodaly's Intermezzo (1905) was infused with rustic charm, led by a folksy violin melody gliding over rocking rhythmic accompaniment, with contrasts provided by a bucolic drone in its central section.

More substantial was Dohnanyi's five-movement Serenade in C Major. Ever the academic, he included a lyrical Romanza, a furious fugal Scherzo and Variations on a chorale theme, bookended by two march- like outer movements. There was much to enjoy in the fine interplay and balance achieved by the threesome, with all voices sharing equal honours.

These were pleasant diversions, distressingly slight next to the imposing Piano Quintet in G Minor by Dmitri Shostakovich. The original pianist, the Russian Viktoria Postnikova, was indisposed for undisclosed reasons and her place filled by Filipino pianist and conservatory don Albert Tiu.

Any hint of disappointment was immediately dispelled as Tiu was as rock-solid as they come, registering an earth-shaking G-Minor chord and opening flourish that was to set the tone of the work. The first two movements comprised a Prelude and Fugue, looking forward to his monumental set of 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano in homage to Bach.

Alongside Tiu was the excellent string quartet of violinists Ye Lin and Cao Can, violist Zhang Manchin and cellist Wang Zihao, all of whom have or had conservatory ties. One would be hard put to find the elegiac Fugue played with such clarity, building from the first violin's simple line and rising to an impassioned climax before gently receding.

The jesting Scherzo had a bounding and bumptious quality that caught listeners by surprise. After so much seriousness, was this brief punch-drunk detour meant to be a tongue-in-cheek riposte?

The music sobered up again in the Intermezzo and here was an outpouring of grief in a way only strings know. Its sobbing quality was perfectly captured by the players, which led directly to a puzzling finale.

Was its apparent light-heartedness a sly dig against Stalinist authoritarianism? The wry humour and quiet ending were played straight and without irony by the quintet, which left its ambiguous conclusion all the more teasing.

The hearty applause garnered suggested that nobody in the audience was going to ask for his money back.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 01, 2016, with the headline 'Light-hearted ambiguous finale a teaser'. Print Edition | Subscribe