Pianist Stephen Hough delivers a French feast

Under the baton of principal guest conductor Andrew Litton, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) performed an all-French programme, opening with Hector Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture.

Not written as a prelude to any opera or play, this was an out-and-out orchestral showpiece quoting themes from the opera Benvenuto Cellini that highlighted both ensemble and solo prowess.

After a slickly delivered introduction, the lot fell to Elaine Yeo's cor anglais, which sang a plaintive melody with true pathos, beginning the evening on a high note.

The concert's selling point was British pianist Stephen Hough's return in one of his favourite party pieces, Camille Saint-Saens' Fifth Piano Concerto, also nicknamed the "Egyptian Concerto". Incidentally, he made his Singapore debut with this same work back in 1986. Except for the central movement which quotes a Nubian song, there was little African to be had.

From the outset, it was French gaiety that reigned. But far from being froth and fluff, Hough's fingers of scintillation were tempered with steel. The filigree so key to Saint-Saens' keyboard writing was never submerged by the orchestra's exertions and it was clear this was no traipse in the Tuileries.

The slow movement's exoticism was delightfully overdone, the piano crafting piquant tinkling bell sounds. With the help of percussion, the wafting aromas went beyond Cairo to reach even Batavia.

The toccata-like manoeuvres of the finale, supposedly mimicking the spinning turbines of a steamship, were a tour de force of velocity. With soloist and orchestra charging headlong at full speed, there could only be one result: roars of approval from the audience.



    Singapore Symphony Orchestra

    Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Friday

For his encore, Hough made the splendid gesture of sharing centre stage with SSO co-concertmaster Lynnette Seah, the orchestra's longest-serving player who retires this year, in Elgar's Salut D'Amour. Her tone was sumptuous and the accompaniment classy and refined, after which he added Debussy's Clair De Lune, which was such a treat.

The orchestra completed the evening with Cesar Franck's Symphony In D Minor. Franck was a key French establishment figure despite being born in Belgium and having a Germanic musical outlook. The opening to his symphony would have reminded one of Wagner and Liszt - his tone poem Les Preludes, in particular - and the orchestra responded with a reading of taut objectivity. Strings were resolute-sounding yet capable of suppleness in the outer movements, while string pizzicatos, harp and cor anglais set the right mood for the soothing slow movement.

The finale was an ecstatically driven ride, with Litton making frequent small leaps on the podium. The symphony's triumphant close belonged to the brass section, which hit the glory notes with fearless aplomb.

So how do an English pianist, an American conductor and a Singaporean orchestra fare in French music? Very well indeed.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2019, with the headline Pianist Stephen Hough delivers a French feast. Subscribe