Concert review: Enigma Variations by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Shui Lan - conductor, Jan Vogler - cello

Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Friday

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has carved itself a bit of niche around the late Romantic works, especially those with nationalistic overtones, and the three works for the evening fall comfortably within this scope, all composed within a 25-year window.

The opening work was The Rock, an early (Opus No. 7) work by Rachmaninov, inspired by a short story by Chekov and described by the composer as a "symphonic fantasy". Completed when he was just short of 20 years, his talent in orchestration and colourful lyricism is already clearly evident. Flute principal Jin Ta's solos were impressive as were the solos and sustained muted notes from horn principal Han Chang Chou.

Swiss American composer Ernest Bloch's musical output was diverse, but the success he found with music inspired by Jewish tradition and scriptures sometimes pigeonholed him as a 'Jewish' composer. Among his works of this genre German cellist Jan Vogler chose the best known, Schelomo, a Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra for the concert.

Volger's choice to perform this relatively sombre, contemplative work was one that paid off. The performance was persuasive, with finely nuanced phrasing and warm tone. Thoughtful accompaniment by the SSO led by an inspired Shui Lan made this a rewarding listen, rather than an over-sentimentalised trudge through scriptures.

If the first-half programme was greatly inspired by Russian writing and Judaic scriptures, the second half work, Elgar's Enigma Variations, was quintessentially English and a yardstick for how well a conductor and orchestra handle 'English' repertoire.

From the opening theme, it was apparent how carefully Shui had prepared the orchestra for this work. Capturing what makes Elgar's music sound English - the sense of reserve, wit and restrained grandeur - is a challenge for any non-native orchestra. Orchestral accompaniment could have been more subdued in the variations with string solos, but Ng Pei Sian (cello) and Zhang Manchin (viola) projected well and were very strong in their solos, as were percussion and trombones when they were in the fore.

The way Shui shaped the theme and subsequent 14 variations, each a miniature based on an incident or impression relating to a friend (with the final based on the composer himself), was highly commendable. Some of the more emotive sections were handled more like Brahms than Elgar, but the most famous Nimrod variation was as noble and moving as could be asked, and the overall performance was a triumph for conductor and orchestra.

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