Conductor-soloist Lars Vogt connects fully with orchestra

REVIEW / CONCERT

SSO SUBSCRIPTION CONCERT - LARS VOGT: MOZART PIANO CONCERTO 21

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lars Vogt (conductor/piano)

Victoria Concert Hall/Last Saturday


Singapore audiences first heard Lars Vogt in an impressive recital at the 2015 Singapore International Piano Festival. He was then on the cusp of a successful conducting career.

Last Saturday, he 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 well-rounded performance.

Just as his previous recital began with a short work by Arnold Schoenberg, the evening opened with Langsamer Satz ("Slow Movement"), one of the earliest works by Schoenberg's pupil Anton Webern. A lyrical outpouring written for string quartet while on a hike with Wilhelmine Mortl, who was later to become his wife, Saturday night'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 and a slight sense of tentativeness in the slower passages did not detract from the fact that Vogt is a conductor of the highest order.

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 Geza 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 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 the evening and would surely have been met with hearty approval by Schumann and Mendel-ssohn, 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), 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2018, with the headline 'Conductor-soloist Lars Vogt connects fully with orchestra'. Print Edition | Subscribe