All keyed up for biting satire



Melvyn Tan (piano), Loh Jun Hong, Seah Huan Yuh, Yang Shuxiang (violins), Matthias Oestringer (viola), Robert Choi (cello)

Victoria Concert Hall


Joining pianist Melvyn Tan was a handful of string players from re:Sound Collective for this programme of chamber works for, respectively, two, four and five players.

Tan was very much the dominant musical force here and there were times during the first half of the concert when one wondered whether any substantive difference would have been made had the string players not been there.

This was not down to any excess egotism from Tan nor undue subservience by the re:Sound players, but in the choice of music.

Early Beethoven Violin Sonatas are sometimes criticised for sounding more like piano sonatas with obbligato violin than true duo works, and with this performance of the frothy Eighth, one saw some justification for that criticism.

As Tan spiritedly broached the turbulent waters of the piece, Loh Jun Hong followed in his wake, valiantly trying to keep up, but occasionally, especially in the manic final movement, forced to cut a few corners.

Schubert's Adagio And Rondo Concertante rarely features in concert programmes and this performance made it clear why that is so. With the three string players dabbing away at a range of loose ideas, the piano toyed with an array of harmonies which never seemed to lead anywhere. One can forgive Schubert, however - he was a mere lad of 19 at the time - and although he was guilty of an awful lot of aimless note-spinning, he did pull something magical out of the hat at the very end.

The real meat of the concert came in the second half, with a performance of Shostakovich's classic Piano Quintet of 1940.

This, too, is a work in which the piano very much takes centre stage, but the string quartet is essential to provide verisimilitude to the dizzying roller-coaster of moods.

From the stern Bach-like opening Prelude through the intensely worked-out second movement Fugue, the outrageously rumbustious Scherzo, the stark and desolate Intermezzo, to the surprisingly understated ending of the Finale, this is music which requires not just immense concentration from all five players, but a real sense of shared involvement with its emotional implications.

It was obvious - as it was throughout the programme - that Tan and the string players had laboured long and hard over the technical intricacies of the music. But here you got the sense that they had also begun to grasp the inner message of what they were playing.

Perhaps, though, it still felt a little like work in progress, with a few more performances necessary to reach the interpretative objective they so clearly had in their collective sights. And this was reinforced when, as an encore, they played the third movement again. This time round, the performance really caught the mood of biting satire.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2018, with the headline All keyed up for biting satire. Subscribe