Stirring to the Finnish

Chinese violinist Feng Ning showed great mastery of technique and tone production.
Chinese violinist Feng Ning showed great mastery of technique and tone production. PHOTO: ESPLANADE


NIELSEN'S ESPANSIVA SYMPHONY/Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Shui Lan - conductor, Feng Ning - violin

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Friday

It would have been a shoo-in for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's Finnish principal guest conductor Okko Kamu to direct this programme marking the 150th birth anniversaries of Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen, the most celebrated composers of Finland and Denmark respectively.

However, principal conductor Shui Lan also has impeccable Scandinavian credentials as principal conductor of the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, and he directed the SSO in a world-class performance of the Nielsen symphony.

The two works by Sibelius were no surprise - his symphonic poem Finlandia and the ever-popular violin concerto. Shui led a robust and tuneful Finlandia, leading to a stirring close with the hymn which has become synonymous with Finland, rousing but not overly indulgent.

Berlin-based Chinese violinist Feng Ning's gentle opening notes of the Sibelius violin concerto were beautifully rounded and his performance of the rest of the concerto showed great mastery of technique and tone production. Multiple prize-winning Feng's playing was always admirable and he produced some of the best violin tone heard at the Esplanade in recent times - strong and even from top to bottom. What the performance could have done with was a touch of Nordic coolness. Feng tended to provide greater volume and energy than called for and some less than pristine entries from SSO woodwinds did the soloist no favours.

It was gratifying to observe that many of the attendees of the concert stayed on for the second half, after the familiar works were done, for even as Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 3 "Sinfonia Espansiva" is one of his better-known symphonies, it is unfamiliar to many concertgoers.

Written in four movements, it features Nielsen's exploration of the idea of "progressive tonality" which he pioneered and the use of a soprano and baritone singing without words in the second movement.

Shui and the SSO took on the almost 40-minute symphony with real gusto and the rotation of several wind principals for the symphony brought a totally reinvigorated sound to the hall. Nielsen's title "Espansiva" did not refer to an expanded orchestral force or compositional techniques, but the scope of ideas the music embodied. Shui and the SSO captured this brilliantly, with phrasing, dynamics and articulation carefully crafted and sounding totally natural.

The foibles in ensemble playing heard in the first half were banished and the orchestral playing was first rate.

The horn section features prominently in the work and Han Chang Chou's horn section was in excellent form, matched by inspired playing from Christian Schioler on timpani, Jon Paul Dante (trumpet), Rachel Walker (oboe) and Jin Ta (flute).

Shui and the SSO have already established a solid reputation for their performances of Rachmaninov and Mahler. From this outing, it seems that the chemistry is right for more memorable programmes incorporating the under-appreciated output of Carl Nielsen.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 03, 2015, with the headline Stirring to the Finnish. Subscribe