Dutoit's masterly return with SSO

Charles Dutoit's trademark attention to detail was rewarded with a tight ensemble and playing of the highest order.
Charles Dutoit's trademark attention to detail was rewarded with a tight ensemble and playing of the highest order.PHOTO: CHRIS LEE

The Swiss conductor directed well-controlled and captivating performances from the orchestra and Russian pianist Lukas Geniusas

REVIEW/CONCERT

SSO GALA: CHARLES DUTOIT - RHAPSODY

ON A THEME OF PAGANINI

Singapore Symphony Orchestra Charles Dutoit (conductor), Lukas Geniusas (piano)/Esplanade Concert Hall/Thursday

Conductor Charles Dutoit's return to the podium comes just over a year after his triumphant debut with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO).

The evening's capacity crowd was clearly anticipating another highly successful concert under the the Swiss maestro, in a programme that included the South-east Asian premiere of Stravinsky's long-lost Funeral Song, a work composed in memory of his teacher RimskyKorsakov, and only recently rediscovered.

One of the foremost interpreters of Stravinsky for many decades, Dutoit directed a well-controlled performance where every instrument had a chance to express homage to the dearly departed.

This highly emotional early work gives hints to the composer's works to come, as well as references to his teacher's writing. The lower strings and contrabassoon have prominent parts in the work and the performance had an air of respect and reverence throughout.

Despite the mystery of its disappearance for so many years and great expectations surrounding its rediscovery, the work remains first and foremost a funeral dirge for a beloved teacher and mentor, and does not offer great insight into Stravinsky's later work.

The composer's ballet suite, The Firebird, was written not long after the Funeral Song, and its opening section harks back to the latter. However, it was the originality and daring in the rest of the work that catapulted the still young composer to fame.

The Firebird was commissioned as music to the ballet by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and Dutoit splendidly ensured the performance was suitable for dancing to, and not so bombastic as to overwhelm the dancers.

This was a highly precise, balanced and nuanced performance, with many excellent solos, including from Han Chang Chou (horn), Rachel Walker (oboe), Jin Ta (flute) and concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich.

Dutoit's trademark attention to detail was amply rewarded with a tight ensemble and playing of the highest order. However, it also seemed to create some anxiety and tension among soloists, when freedom and levity would have been more welcome.

Between the two strong performances of works by Stravinsky was an outstanding performance of Rachmaninov's Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini.

The SSO's musicians would no doubt be extremely familiar with the work, but this performance with young Russian pianist Lukas Geniusas and an inspired Dutoit must have felt like a first reading - insightful, original and totally captivating.

The opening of the Rhapsody uses the theme from Paganini's final Caprice for solo violin, and Geniusas captured its carefree, whimsical character perfectly.

Throughout the 24 variations, he was never tempted to show overt virtuosity or to indulge the audience with an over-romanticised, swooning rendition of the 18th variation, the one with the achingly beautiful melody.

Dutoit made this a partnership of geniuses, guiding the orchestra as if it was an extended chamber ensemble, with every orchestral soloist carefully blending with Geniusas' solos.

Neither pianist nor orchestra resorted to excessive bravura. Clarity was extraordinary and the playing revealed subtle twists seldom heard in other performances of the Rhapsody.

This performance was a connoisseur's delight - a combination of exquisite Swiss craftsmanship and brilliant young Russian talent.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2017, with the headline 'Dutoit's masterly return with SSO'. Print Edition | Subscribe