High drama in Shakespeare-inspired Russian celebration

REVIEW / CONCERT

SHAKESPEARE 400: HAMLET - THE YEAR 1917

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Nikolai Demidenko (piano), Darrell Ang (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Friday

The ghost of Shakespeare was in there somewhere, but this concert, part of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's Shakespeare quadricentennial series, was mostly a celebration of Russian orchestral music.

However, there was nothing particularly celebratory about these three angst-ridden works, full of fizzing tension.

Originally intended to accompany a stage production of Hamlet's Act Three, Tchaikovsky's Fantasy Overture never made it onto the theatrical stage and you would have to look hard to find in the music any direct connection with Shakespeare's drama.

But drama there is and high drama is what conductor Darrell Ang drew from the orchestra in this performance, which lurched somewhat from one high-octane climax to another, but was undeniably exciting.

He had a much better grasp of the architecture of Shostakovich's 12th Symphony with its poisonous depiction of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The first two sections powered along with such vividly conveyed musical imagery that one almost felt one was there as Lenin and his gang set about their bloodthirsty rout of Russian society. The orchestra was on cracking form, rising to the challenge under the inspirational zeal of Ang's sharply focused direction.

It wobbled a bit at the start of the Symphony's third section and went a little off the boil, but things got back on track in time for a relentlessly aggressive conclusion. This was a breathtaking and searing performance driven by the amazing virtuosity of the percussion section.

Carried away by this triumph, Ang forgot to acknowledge the brilliant efforts of principal trombone Allen Meek, but he made good the oversight when nudged on by tuba player Hidehiro Fujita - who himself deserved praise for his amazing performance - to the delight of the orchestra and audience.

The centrepiece of the programme was Prokofiev's third Piano Concerto. Ang, who has mastered the composer's characteristic precise and machine-like driving rhythms, exerted steely discipline over the performance. He steered the music effortlessly across the multitude of tricky speed changes, never once falling out of synch with pianist Nikolai Demidenko, especially at the dangerously exposed ending of the first movement.

And Demidenko gave a truly formidable performance, creating an almost hypnotic feeling of relentless motion. At times, his fingers leapt across the keyboard with the mischievous sprightliness of Puck and at others, he stabbed at the piano like a scene from Macbeth. In other moments, he evoked the ingratiating malevolence of Iago or a sense of seething bitterness straight out of Hamlet.

This was certainly the most musically dramatic and powerfully committed performance that the orchestra has put on this season.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2016, with the headline 'High drama from work inspired by Shakespeare'. Print Edition | Subscribe