Concert review: Sax And Sextet - VCH Chamber Series

Victoria Concert Hall

Last Saturday

Three Singapore premieres featured in this concert by members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestras and their guests, part of the innovative Victoria Concert Hall Chamber Series. World renowned French classical saxophonist Claude Delangle, in town for recording sessions with the SSO, helmed the first half with two rarely programmed works.

The first is slightly better known, Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff's Hot Sonata (1930) for alto sax and piano. The term "hot" referred to the fever that was sweeping Europe from the New World during the 1920s and 30s, the influence of Afro-American jazz in music that also obsessed composers like Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud and Martinu. Its four movements thrived on vigorous syncopated rhythms, blues harmonies and any hint of the subversive.

Delangle lapped up its sultry vibes with great relish and animation, especially in the 3rd movement with wailing portamentos that would not be out of place in the smoky dives of Harlem. Providing accompaniment was pianist Low Shao Suan whose rock-solid timing and mastery of tricky beats enabled him to weave a magical spell through the work's quarter-hour.

More conventional was Adolf Busch's Saxophone Quintet (1925), with Delangle joined by violinists Chan Yoong Han and Cindy Lee, violist Luo Biao and cellist Chan Wei Shing. Think of a clarinet quintet but replace it with the duskily burnished tones of sax, and throw in pages of rich Brahmsian counterpoint spiced with skirting at the edges of tonality.

The result was an adventurous performance which gave much satisfaction, capped by a quirky Theme & Variations movement which alternated between sobriety and whimsicality before closing with long-breathed lyricism and quiet sublimity.

The third, also the longest, was Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Sextet (1824), composed when he was only 15. It is a virtuoso piano concerto in all but name, with pianist Albert Tiu from the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory in supreme control. The unusual scoring, with violin (with Chan Yoong Han), two violas (Gu Bing Jie and Marietta Ku), cello (Ng Pei-Sian) and double-bass (Yang Zheng Yi), was for the purpose of domestic Hausmusik that was to be played by skilled amateurs in polite 19th century homes.

In reality, only seasoned professionals could pull off the performance the audience was treated to. The balance between strings and piano was excellent, and the inevitable pianistic prestidigitation flowed like pure silk. The slow movement was a seamless "song without words" contrasted by a Beethovenian urgency of the Minuet and Trio.

The exciting finale was pure joy itself, with moments of humour as the dominant piano gave way for the violin to hog the limelight, albeit for a few short measures. This is the sort of congeniality that takes place in sparkling chamber music, and no one would begrudge the loud and lengthy applause that greeted its spirited finish.