Concert review: Rachmaninov Concerto No. 2 - Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Friday

The name of Sergei Rachmaninov is an indispensable marketing tool. Its use is almost certain to ensure a well-filled hall, even if the duration of music in the concert does not last more than an hour. Such was the case of this evening's concert by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Music Director Shui Lan, which included a popular piano concerto and two short orchestral pieces.

The Russian composer was certainly a talented lad of 14 when he wrote his Scherzo in D minor (1887), a wisp of a work lasting all of five minutes. Feathery lightness was the key in reliving its Mendelssohnian charm, with the pairs of flutes and bassoons flitting effortlessly as the strings ran circles with an engaging if not memorable melody.

Further promise was to follow in the symphonic poem The Rock (1893), Rachmaninov's first important orchestral work. Its subject was based on a Chekhov tale of old age confronting youth, with principal flautist Jin Ta confidently helming the leading role. The music, already imbued with the composer's trademark Slavic melancholy, impressively built up to a Tchaikovskyan climax with brass ablazing before receding quietly.

The short first half lasting under 30 minutes was followed by the titular Second Piano Concerto (1901), which ran just past the half-hour. Those expecting a barnstorming account a la Lang Lang would have been disappointed with Argentine pianist Nelson Goerner's noble and unhistrionic account. Although of slight physical stature, he was no weakling, bringing much musicality and no little degree of polish to the proceedings.

Unlike the very showy Third Piano Concerto, the solo piano part of the Second is intricately woven within the fabric of the orchestral scoring. As such the orchestra was careful not to overwhelm, and the balance was very well managed while teetering on a tightrope. Marc-Antoine Robillard's horn solo near the end of the first movement was excellent, and Ma Yue's clarinet distinguished the opening of the slow movement.

Some of the best moments were also the most subtle, such as the lush violins singing at the Adagio's close accompanied by big piano chords. The work then caught fire for the coruscating finale, where mercurial reflexes jostled keenly with the movement's "big tune", probably the most anticipated part of the concerto. Goerner's technique more than matched the bluster applied for the grandstand finish, which brought out the cheers.

No respectable SSO concert at Esplanade ends before nine, when the night is beneath young. So Goerner offered two very well-received encores: Scriabin's wistful Poeme in F sharp major (Op.32 No.1), beautifully voiced, and the sweeping virtuosity of Chopin's Prelude in D minor (Op.28 No.24). The gesture was a nice one, but as everybody knows, quality trumps quantity any day or night.