Highs and lows of ensemble playing



Christina Siu, Toh Meng Wan and Friends

Esplanade Recital Studio

Last Sunday

It was hard to escape the strains of Georges Bizet's Carmen at the Esplanade over the weekend. Not only was the opera put on twice, but it cropped up again on Sunday evening. This time it was not the opera that was performed, but a heavily truncated version of the Overture and pared down further to a single piano. Sunday's performance was, however, every bit as fascinating to see and hear as had been the opera.

The reason was that no less than three pairs of hands were playing on a single piano. Three pianists jostling for keyboard space was a sight to behold. On top of the visual entertainment, it was deftly played. In addition to Carmen, the same trio played Beethoven's Minuet In G and a Dvorak Humoresque. For William Gillock's Champagne Toccata, there were four pairs of hands at two pianos. Kyn Lim, Foo Shiaw Yien, Karina Laurents and Tham Su Lin did marvels with this bubbly if not particularly original piece.

Ensembles in various shapes and sizes were what this concert was all about. The main work was Beethoven's Trio In C Minor for violin, cello and piano. A performance which was at times wooden and occasionally disturbed by some uncomfortable splinters nevertheless revealed much sound teamwork.

Pianist Sim Yi Kai had obviously been practising his scales - all four movements seemed to involve an awful lot of them - but he never dominated the ensemble. That role would usually fall to the violin, but on this occasion, Toh Meng Wan seemed only too happy to let Eddie Sim's cello rule, especially in the delightful conversational gambits of the second movement.

Eddie Sim and Sim Yi Kai returned to give a gentle account of Faure's Sicilienne and a particularly affecting performance of the theme from the Japanese movie Departures (2008).

There were yet more piano ensembles, one involving six hands at two pianos, which led to some amusing on-stool antics from Phua Wan Cheng and Ambrose Wong and another from four hands at two pianos. The latter was a dreamy improvisation by Christina Siu and Jeremy Joel Fernandez.

The theme of the evening may have been ensemble playing, but only one hero stood out. Fernandez's improvised accompaniments to a couple of inoffensive yet forgettable vocal numbers had such empathy and throwaway panache that he single-handedly (or should that be double?) rescued the concert's second half from descending into terminal sentimentality.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Highs and lows of ensemble playing'. Subscribe