Charmed by cello

Gala concerts raise expectations and one featuring pianist-turned-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy with French cellist Gautier Capucon meant a second sold-out concert in succession at the Esplanade Concert Hall, following the Staatskapelle Dresden's patchy outing a night earlier.

However, with the ever dependable Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) as their partners, Ashkenazy and Capucon delivered on the promise with a crowd-pleaser.

Capucon, 38, is one of the highest-profile cellists of his generation and in huge demand.

The Schumann cello concerto, which he selected, is a work the SSO has performed with other prominent guest cellists. And yet pitting a solo cello against a full symphony orchestra is seldom straightforward.

Schumann's orchestration is especially interesting on this front, with delicate cello solos punctuated by large orchestral tuttis.

Capucon's cello tone and sensitivity are a marvel. Even in the relatively large acoustic of the venue, every stroke of his bow on the strings was clear and his gradation of timbre and dynamics was breathtaking. Any anxiety the orchestra might overwhelm the soloist was misplaced, thanks to his noble tone, Ashkenazy's care and the SSO's sensitive playing.

With such factors, this was destined to be one of the most memorable cello concertos to be heard in Singapore in recent memory.



    Singapore Symphony Orchestra - Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor), Gautier Capucon (cello)

    Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Thursday

In the event, it was not to be - the final ounce of synergy in live performance remained elusive.

Capucon excels in chamber collaborations. In the second movement, his duet sections with SSO principal cellist Ng Pei-Sian were pure ecstasy. This movement was a triumph.

But in the outer movements, his extraordinary clarity and levity yearned for closer interaction, perhaps with a smaller orchestra with which he could work with greater intimacy.

Ashkenazy opened the evening with the Manfred Overture by Schumann and closed it with Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. He drew very good sound from the SSO from the first notes of the overture, with a taut sound from the double bass section. There was some initial tentativeness in ensemble though, and a sense that the overture was there as a filler before the Schumann concerto.

In contrast, the thought, preparation and conviction Ashkenazy brought to the Tchaikovsky symphony were evident from the opening fanfare. The horn section, led by principal Han Chang Chou, brimmed with confidence and was strongly partnered by the rest of the brasses.

The 20-minute first movement runs the risk of listener fatigue, but Ashkenazy's well-contoured shaping ensured that this was not the case. The outer sections were forthright, while the woodwinds were tidy and elegant, if slightly restrained, in the quieter waltz-like second theme of the movement.

The later movements were sheer joy for lovers of Tchaikovsky. Ashkenazy gave them the shape and colour that come so naturally to a Russian conductor. The first movement had a persistent "fate" motif. In the final movement, this motif makes a short-lived return, but the overall mood is festive, as befits a gala concert.

A lesser conductor might have loosened the reins fully, but Ashkenazy held on just enough to end the symphony with exuberance but without excess.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2019, with the headline 'Charmed by cello'. Subscribe