SSO Subscription Concert - Lars Vogt: Mozart Piano Concerto 21
Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lars Vogt (conductor/piano)
Victoria Concert Hall/ Oct 20 (Saturday)
Singapore audiences first heard Lars Vogt in an impressive recital at the 2015 Singapore International Piano Festival. At that time he was on the cusp of a successful conducting career.
On Saturday Vogt made his return to the same hall, directing a spirited Mozart piano concerto as well as yielding a baton to direct the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) in a thoroughly well-rounded performance.
Just as Vogt's recital three years earlier began with a short work by Arnold Schoenberg, this evening opened with Langsamer Satz ("Slow Movement"), one of earliest works by Schoenberg's pupil Anton Webern. A lyrical outpouring written for string quartet while on a hike with Wilhelmine Mörtl, who was later to become his wife, tonight's performance was of the arrangement for string orchestra by American conductor/trumpeter Gerard Schwarz.
Directing without baton, Vogt shaped the long, complex lines beautifully, maintaining good top to bottom balance. The SSO's strings responded well to his nuances, and a slight sense of tentativeness in slower passages did not detract from the fact that Vogt is a conductor of the highest order.
The sight of a the piano concerto soloist directing the orchestra with his or her back to the audience has become more of a norm for local audiences. Vogt selected Mozart's ever-popular Piano Concerto no. 21, a spirited, optimistic piece that complemented the Webern perfectly. There was great forward momentum and energy throughout, and a sense that Vogt did not want the concerto to succumb to the saccharine-sweetness, but to allow it to flow with freedom and a hint of risk-taking.
In his solo playing Vogt also pushed the tempo, leading to the odd untidy note, but also to a palpable sense of adventure. His second movement was a total contrast to pianist Géza Anda's highly romantic interpretation used in the 1967 movie "Elvira Madigan", giving the concerto its nickname, but Vogt fully retained the lyricism and beauty of Mozart's writing. A sparkling, vivacious final movement ended the concerto.
The symphony for the evening was Robert Schumann's Symphony no. 2. Just as he offers a broad palette of tones and articulation on the keyboard, Vogt's conducting brought a different, more robust, romantic hue to the orchestra.
Using a baton for this work, he balanced the compact string section, only slightly larger than the what he used in Mozart, with a wind section that was in superb form. At first glance it seemed as if the three trombones, two trumpets and two horns could be too strong for the strings, but from the opening trumpet chorale to the finale there was wonderfully sensitive playing from all quarters of the SSO.
The symphony was premiered under the baton of Schumann's contemporary and good friend Felix Mendelssohn. Vogt's direction of sprightly and humorous second movement scherzo was a highlight of evening, and would surely have met with hearty approval by both Schumann and Mendelssohn were they present.
The luscious woodwind solos in the third movement were excellently played, and the orchestra rounded off the evening with a rousing, energetic finale.
This concert led by a conductor cum soloist by no means signals the demise of the dedicated symphonic conductor or concerto soloist. It does follow memorable SSO performances with Andrew Litton, (piano) Leonidas Kavakos (violin) and Han-na Chang (cello) and others where the soloist also directed the orchestra. Those who have lingering doubts about the format should just sit back and enjoy the music when the orchestra is fully connected in mind and body with the soloist.