Classical music review: Beethoven's triple & Mahler's fifth

Two popular works, a million-dollar trio and low-priced tickets were what completely sold this concert by the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra on the eve of a public holiday, on April 17. The sense of occasion at the Esplanade Concert Hall was heightened when the music began some 40 minutes late, due to stringent security checks before the appearance of no less than the Prime Minister himself.

Beethoven wrote no cello concerto, and so his Triple Concerto in C major (Op.56), for violin, cello and piano (the quintessential piano trio), is the closest thing to one. It was no accident that cellist Qin Li-Wei was positioned right smack in the centre, on the forestage, with both the piano and conductor displaced right of centre.

The first solo entry naturally fell to Qin, whose statement was clear in voice and intent. He would be the leader, while violinist Qian Zhou offered countermelodies and an intricate veil of harmony. Their chemistry, as previously demonstrated in Brahms' Double Concerto, was immediate and palpable, with the duo casting frequent glances at each other as the music rolled on.

The orchestra led by Jason Lai and Albert Tiu's piano provided more than textural and rhythmic support in the engaging 35-minute-long work. True to form in this taut and highly-strung performance, there were several heart-stopping moments involving the pianist.

There was a flub early in the first movement, quickly corrected. And deep into the Polonaise-influenced finale, one of Tiu's high-G strings snapped on sudden impact. All this made for an eventful outing, which also witnessed arch-lyricism in the all-too-short slow movement and a going-for-broke, with all guns blazing, coda.

Mahler's Fifth Symphony demonstrated the young orchestra's breadth and depth, both as an ensemble and in its soloists' prowess. Wang Jingyuan's opening trumpet solo was more confident than pristine, but rightly set the mood for the first movement's funeral march. The pacing was well-judged by conductor Lai, stately but not too ponderous, which made the second movement's violent upheavals all the more acutely felt.

French horn principal Tan Chai Suang literally stood out in the Scherzo, where her whooping solo entries were delivered with an outsized bravura and imperious sweep. Alongside her, the entire horn section of seven shone in this paradox of a movement which also incorporated a gentle Austrian country-dance within its rollicking pages.

The famous Adagietto, scored for only strings and harp, was beautifully delivered. Played without sentimentality and pathos, it took the right path: one does not need to be reminded of dead dignitaries or expiring in Venice. The music is too good for that kind of narrowness of interpretation.

The finale, based on a satirical Mahler song about a singing contest between a cuckoo and nightingale, saw all stops being pulled out. The solo entries to begin were all excellent, and soon the competing counterpoint converged into a log jam of overflowing ideas. Trust Lai and his charges to unravel these with a coherence and clarity that was staggering.

At high speed, the hectic but triumphant finale no longer seemed implausible but a reality. The well-behaved (no misplaced clapping between movements) and appreciative audience seemed to whole-heartedly agree.

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