Concert review: Austrian husband-wife team make exalted chamber music show seem like play


VCH Chamber Series

Victoria Concert Hall/Sunday

Concert life in Singapore has been greatly enhanced when visiting artists performing with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra stay on a little longer to give chamber concerts or masterclasses. This year's reopening of Victoria Concert Hall has provided audiences with further opportunities to witness a different kind of artistry in chamber music within more intimate settings.

One day after their "big" concert with the SSO, Austrian violinist-conductor Thomas Zehetmair and his violist wife Ruth Killius lit up Victoria Concert Hall again with more Mozart. Their two-hour long-recital featured two Mozart Duos and two string quartets, performing with SSO string players, works hardly heard in concert here.

The pair of Mozart duos for violin and viola are truly beautiful works that demonstrate the purity of the voices of both instruments. Duo No. 1 in G major (K.423), which opened the concert, seemed outwardly simple but provided a feast of polyphony. Zehetmair's tone was incisive but sweet, a balm that was further soothed by Killius' warm and mellow sound. Together their playing resonated like a single instrument, their parts so lovingly intertwined.

Its slow movement possessed the seamless quality of Mozart's operatic arias, and the finale's Rondo exhibited a full-voiced humour that was vintage. The programme notes stated that Mozart tried to disguise his style (writing on behalf of an ailing Michael Haydn) but there was little mistaking his overriding genius.

The two string quartets were as alike as chalk and cheese. SSO violinist Nikolai Koval and cellist Guo Hao joined the duo in Paul Hindemith's Quartet Op. 32 No. 5, a work of uncompromising modernism. The grittiness and slashing dissonances are closer to the spirit of Bartok and Shostakovich, both great composers of quartets, but deeper inside lay the German's allegiance to Bach and the world of counterpoint.

Amid the aural violence trenchantly delivered by the foursome, one could discern fugal sequences of complexity, and after a short but menacing Little March, a magnificent Passacaglia emerged, one so well disguised as to be almost unrecognisable. The performance, likely to be a Singapore premiere, is unlikely to be bettered for some time here.

The second quartet was Haydn's Serenade in F major, now known to be written by the obscure Bavarian Roman Hoffstetter. Its popular second movement raised smiles of recognition as Zehetmair's melodic line soared above the pizzicato string accompaniment, provided by Killius, violinist Ye Lin and cellist Wang Yan.

The final item was Mozart's Duo No.2 in B flat major (K.424), which mirrored the first half's offering. Again the nobility of conception and execution shone through in the vivid dialogue between Zehetmair and Killius through its three movements. The grace of the slow movement and the finale's perky theme and variations provided the icing on the cake. Performing music to this exalted level might seem like a hard day's work, but the duo made it sound like play, and lots more play. That is the essence of true chamber music-making.