SSO: Emperor and Pathétique
Singapore Symphony Orchestra - Kachun Wong (conductor), Shai Wosner (piano)
Esplanade Concert Hall/Friday (25 Aug, 2017)
There was a great sense of anticipation for this evening's concert - two favourite works and the draw of Singaporean conductor Wong Kah Chun meant that the choir seats were put on sale at the last minute.
In the event, both Wong and Israeli-born pianist Shai Wosner acquitted themselves well in the programme of Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto and Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" Symphony.
For 31-year-old Wong, winner of the 2016 Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, this was his first occasion conducting a full Singapore Symphony Orchestra programme. His confident first beat of the "Emperor" concerto bode well, with Wosner's opening solo piano flourish equally persuasive.
Wong led the following orchestral section with full conviction, precision and a suitably Teutonic sense of direction, while Wosner showed abundant ability to take on the concerto. Playing with great clarity and articulation, his first movement was always flowing, and the SSO was equally adept in their accompaniment.
A touching second movement followed, where Wosner played simply and beautifully, without excess, as if in a chamber music setting. This led directly into the final movement, the exuberant Rondo that brims with energy.
Wosner and the SSO played well together, save for the occasions the soloist tried to push ahead while the SSO remained steadfast. What felt missing was the sense of scale and authority that a top performance of the "Emperor" concerto calls for.
Tchaikovsky wanted the subtitle he had initially given to this sixth symphony, "Pathétique", to be removed from subsequent prints. His publisher however saw the value in the name and kept it, so rightly or wrongly, the tag which in Russian means passionate and emotional, with shades of sorrow, remains with the symphony.
In contrast to the opening of the "Emperor" concerto, there is a quiet, profound opening to Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique", played by solo bassoon and basses.
Much as the musicians tried their utmost to convey Wong's intent, the nerves and tension of the occasion showed, leading to a tentative, uncertain sound. To the credit of conductor and orchestra, this soon dissipated as the music moved into the more energetic allegro section.
Wong's reading showed a good understanding of inner details and the overarching structure of the symphony, as befits a conductor who was first schooled as a composer. His direction drew a wide range of dynamics and good ensemble, although attention was needed to join up episodes of the symphony, to avoid awkward silence in between.
The scherzo-like third movement that grows into an exuberant march was robust and rousing. It was impressive stuff, inevitably leading to a smattering of premature applause - so often heard when this symphony is performed.
It was in the slower second and fourth movements of the symphony that Wong was most comfortable and in control. Tchaikovsky has magnificent string orchestration in the final movement, and Wong and the SSO strings produced a rich, lush tone that was a highlight of the evening. Also outstanding all evening was timpanist Christian Schioler.
The symphony ends quietly, poignantly apt for a work that turned out to be Tchaikovsky's swan song. With the nerves of his SSO debut behind him, Wong directed a passionate, composed reading of the last movement, signalling hopes for a long, successful career to come.