REVIEW / CONCERT
SIBELIUS COMPLETE SYMPHONIES I
The Philharmonic Orchestra, Lim Yau (conductor)
Victoria Concert Hall/Sunday
They completed their run of the Beethoven symphonies a few months back, so Lim Yau and the Philharmonic Orchestra have now turned to Sibelius and a year-long series performing all seven of his symphonies.
There is some sense in following Beethoven with Sibelius - even if you miss out significant 19th-century symphonists such as Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky - since Beethoven's and Sibelius' Firsts were, respectively, the first and last major symphonic premieres of the 19th century.
Lim, however, chose not to start this Sibelius cycle with the First, but launched straight into the Third Symphony. It was a sensible choice, since the Third is Sibelius' most accessible symphony, full of great tunes and glorious moments.
In the first two movements, the orchestra was producing some fabulous playing and Lim was inspiring it to impressive heights of excellence.
It was neither entirely the orchestra nor Lim's fault that the third movement often seemed rather shambolic. You get the impression that Sibelius got bored after producing such wonders earlier in the symphony, and it ended decidedly lamely.
So it was to their credit that these Singapore musicians not only produced very creditable performances, but also showed glimpses of a real affinity with the music.
Every section of an orchestra is projected in a Sibelius symphony and strengths and weaknesses are cruelly exposed.
The Philharmonic Orchestra was certainly producing some top-class playing here, but in the First Symphony, which followed the interval, a couple of weaknesses were revealed.
A little more time spent tuning the wind on stage would not have gone amiss, as things were very ugly for a moment in the second movement, while a serious shortage of cellos was the one obvious indication of an orchestra which does not play in public with any real frequency.
Given the lovely collective violin and viola sound and a disarmingly powerful double bass one, a few more cellos would have given a wonderful richness to the string sound.
Lim's direction had the great benefit of purpose and fluency. Where things wobbled, he kept them on the straight and narrow, and where things shone, he did not hesitate to give extra lustre through an expansive approach to dynamics.
Great big climaxes and intimate little passages of self-reflection brought the symphony vividly to life.
Symphonies 2 and 4 will be in the next instalment of this series, and while concertgoers have to wait till October for that, the wait will certainly be worthwhile.