French pianist Helene Grimaud turns in expansive, romantic performance of Ravel concerto

French pianist Helene Grimaud.
French pianist Helene Grimaud. PHOTO: SSO/HELENE GRIMAUD


Victoria Concert Hall/Friday

At his last performance with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, American conductor John Nelson directed a memorable Brahms Symphony No. 1 - full of warmth and with sweeping lyricism.

Last Friday evening, the programme was outside the romantic repertoire he is so well known for, with two delectable works by Frenchman Maurice Ravel, sandwiched between two by the German composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Notwithstanding the masterful and mature orchestration referred to in the programme notes for Mozart's ballet music to his opera Idomeneo and fine orchestral playing from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, particularly from principal oboist Rachel Walker, the music was pedestrian, and not destined to be a highlight of the concert.

France's Helene Grimaud performance of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major was highly anticipated, especially by those who heard her last performance with the SSO, of Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1. The influence of jazz is evident in the first and third movements of the Ravel concerto, but Grimaud chose an expansive, romantic approach in the first movement, contrasting this with a more rhythmic and percussive final movement.

The SSO provided excellent accompaniment, and Jon Dante's brilliant trumpet-playing brought the sparkle to Ravel's inspired orchestration. Ever elegant and technically beyond reproach throughout the concerto, Grimaud in the second movement was simple yet compelling, and she was beautifully partnered by Elaine Yeo on the cor anglais. This performance might not have fully met the expectations of those used to a jazzier, Gershwin-like approach, but it was hard to fault.

Ravel's orchestration of his piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin is an homage to earlier French composers and World War I, but not a mournful work, being based on French court dances. Yet again it calls for orchestral playing of the highest virtuosity. Nelson directed with his usual precision and detail, and the SSO responded equally. All the elements for a superlative performance were there, but for a certain lack of panache that the work calls for

The final work was the Symphony No. 39 by Mozart, in which Nelson appeared re-invigorated and his clear directions and sense of line brought forth a very convincing performance of the symphony. The SSO strings were in excellent form, as they had been all evening.

Mozart unusually scored two clarinets in place of oboes in the symphony, giving them prominent parts, especially in the third movement minuet. Ma Yue and Tang Xia Ping (clarinets) nailed their parts, as did the rest of the winds, who performed at a very high level through the evening. The final movement was brisk and energetic, and brough the evening to a rousing close.