Concert review: Veteran Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit fills SSO concert with subtle insights


Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Saturday Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit turns 80 years old this year. And it shows.

Not in any visible way - he seems as sprightly on stage as a man half his age - and certainly not to the detriment of his music-making.

However, you do not become one of the most venerable conductors on the podium without picking up a lot of valuable knowledge along the way and it was the insight drawn from his long years of experience which shone through most vividly in this concert.

Dutoit has lived with the three works in this programme longer than the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) has been in existence.

Those decades of familiarity have brought about a deep and intimate understanding of what works best.

The concert opener, Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole, was conveyed more as a subtle whiff of Spain than a vividly coloured evocation of it.

So subtle were the shades he drew from the orchestra that it had more the character of a sepia print, the small splashes of instrumental light largely suppressed by a rich and luscious string tone which was in itself so utterly lovely that it masked a multitude of minor misdemeanours elsewhere.

If the works in the programme were old friends of Dutoit, perhaps he occasionally forgot that for some members of the orchestra, they were, at least, relatively new acquaintances.

It has been eight years since the SSO last performed Saint-Saens Third Symphony at the Esplanade and, in that time, many players have come and gone.

So, they possibly needed a firmer, less sensitive hand on the tiller to avoid the missed entries, the ragged ensemble and the occasional sense of teetering on the brink.

However, it is a work which never fails to excite and from the soulful opening strings and the ethereal woodwind whispers to the glittering piano scales, the mighty brass chords and the thundering organ at the end, the audience lapped it up, giving it an appropriately exultant ovation.

The concert, though, was not without its splash of youthful vigour. It came in the guise of Arabella Steinbacher, more than half Dutoit's age and young enough to be his granddaughter.

That said, she occasionally seemed to prod him along. When he wanted to dwell too lingeringly on the opening movements of Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto, she took the opportunity of the large spaces he opened up in the work to indulge in absolutely gorgeous playing.

Small and delicate touches, delicious little nuances of tone and colour and flashes of florid virtuosity, all combined to make this a deeply satisfying performance and one which had about it a genuinely ageless quality.

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