When the divergent paths of Brahms and Liszt converge

REVIEW / CONCERT

DIVERGENCE

Albert Tiu, piano

Adrian Tan, conductor

Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra

School of the Arts Concert Hall/Sunday

The title of this concert comes from the fact that the two composers featured represented divergent paths in the course of music during the 19th century.

In a brief musical history lesson given by conductor Adrian Tan, it was explained that German composer Johannes Brahms represented the conservative "keepers of the faith" while Hungary-born Franz Liszt was a beacon for future and modernistic trends.

The second piano concertos of both composers reflected this divergence. However, when heard back to back in concert, an unusual convergence also presented itself. Both are works of maturity, conceived as symphonic essays first and foremost, with the demanding piano solo parts integrated into the whole almost as an afterthought.

Philippines-born and Singapore-based pianist Albert Tiu had a superhuman task cut out for him. Playing for about 70 minutes, he was a figure of utter concentration and composure. In the Liszt, he brought its narrative through a slow boil, from its slow chorale-like opening and intricate filigree, all the way to the barnstorming - big chords, storming octaves and sweeping glissandi - more associated with the pianist-composer.

In the Brahms, the mighty bluster of its opening cadenza was a foil for an inner vulnerability, which Tiu brought out with much cogency. Both Brahms and Liszt were fire-breathing virtuosos in their youth, but lived out their old age as god-like sages.

This reviewer remembers Tiu performing this same Brahms with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra as a teenager 30 years ago at a piano competition final. He might have achieved note-perfection then in his impetuous youth, but has now truly come to grips with Brahms' world weariness, warts and all.

The Scherzo second movement sounded under-rehearsed, but shaky as it was, Tiu became steadfast like a rock, with the orchestra somehow managing to keep up.

In the Liszt, a measure of the sublime was afforded in the solo by orchestral cellist Peh Xiang Hong, an episode where Tiu merely accompanied her.

In the slow movement of the Brahms, her warm cello solo was an inspiration, but pity that the view of her was completely blocked by the Steinway grand.

As a final point of convergence, the fleet-fingered close of both concertos was achieved with mercurial lightness and a streak of scintillating brilliance.

As an encore, Tiu cheekily offered an over-ornamented edition of Chopin's otherwise familiar Nocturne In E Flat Major (Op. 9 No. 2), knowing full well Brahms would not have approved.

Before the two concertos, the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra performed Wagner's portentous Overture To Tannhauser. The brass was barely warmed up in the opening Pilgrim's Chorus, but the ensemble soon gelled to give a truly spirited and cohesive reading.

It was refreshing to see how this humble community orchestra has blossomed under Tan's leadership.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2019, with the headline 'When the divergent paths of Brahms and Liszt converge'. Print Edition | Subscribe