Love conveyed with drama and playfulness



Singapore Symphony Orchestra - Hans Graf (conductor), Martin Helmchen (piano)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Friday

In his return appearance with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), Austrian conductor Hans Graf's bold decision to premiere Alexander Zemlinsky's recently discovered Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) was a masterful stroke.

Young German pianist Martin Helmchen, who made his successful SSO debut just last year, joined Graf in Johannes Brahms' Second Piano Concerto, with outstanding results.

The great love and passion expressed in Zemlinsky's tone poem The Mermaid are believed to have been a result of his being jilted by Alma Schindler, who subsequently married composer Gustav Mahler.

The work received a lukewarm reception when it premiered in 1905, leading the composer to withdraw it. A score was rediscovered only in 1980 and it has since become one of his most widely performed works.

The lush, atmospheric piece has many solos depicting elements from Hans Christian Andersen's tale, The Little Mermaid.

Graf's elegant, sweeping gestures gave the 47-minute, three-movement work good direction. Concertmaster Igor Yuzefovich had many of these solos and his depictions of the mermaid were beautifully played throughout.

Over the years, the SSO has built a sterling reputation for the performances of powerful late romantic works, including the tone poems of Richard Strauss.

Last Friday evening, the wind principals proved equally at home with this quieter, more ethereal work. Han Chang Chou (horn principal) was in especially good form, swapping heroic horn calls for more delicate, distant solos.

The Mermaid never felt tedious or repetitive, thanks to Graf's ability to sustain the overarching musical ideas and shape the lines.

A wonderfully lyrical opening solo by Jamie Hersch (horn associate principal) and Helmchen's matching response signalled the start of a very special performance of the Second Piano Concerto by Brahms.

Helmchen is supremely musical, with fleet fingering and great expressive range. He plays effortlessly, belying his gift to instantly switch from a muted hush to an orchestra-matching fortissimo. His playing this evening was not note-perfect, but he always drew listeners to the music, seamlessly blending his solos with the orchestra.

Graf directed the SSO with the care and passion of someone directing one of Brahms' great symphonies. The result was some of the finest concerto accompaniment ever heard from the orchestra.

In the third movement, a solo cello becomes a duet partner with the piano. Principal Ng Pei-Sian's solo was captivating, his instrument projecting clearly while retaining an exquisite plaintive quality. Helmchen responded in kind, gradually building intensity until the music eventually ebbed and the cello solo returned.

Graf and Helmchen had an innate sense of how to keep the music flowing. The performance was full of drama and excitement, yet never lost the playfulness and levity in Brahms' writing. Add to this the SSO in scintillating form and the result was an inspired partnership.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2018, with the headline 'Love conveyed with drama and playfulness'. Print Edition | Subscribe