Concert review: From Russia with love

Conservatory Concert Hall / Nov 21

Every once in a while, the small but important community of Russian professional musicians in Singapore bands together to give a concert at the Conservatory. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, these musicians planted their roots here, playing in the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and teaching in the Conservatory, or both. Attended by a large and enthusiastic audience, it was a way of showing their appreciation to their adopted home.

St Petersburg native Kerim Vergazov was the busy pianist, playing every minute of the concert with a stern demeanour belying much sensitivity and musicianship. Flautist Evgueni Brokmiller opened both halves of the concert with showpieces, beginning with the Allegro Concertante No.2 by Vladimir Tsybin, hailed as the "father of the Russian flute school".

This and Georges Enesco's Cantabile Et Presto, which graced the second half, were not particularly Slavic in character, instead more redolent of the French style. Nevertheless, it gave Brokmiller much scope to showcasing his silvery and mellifluous tone, and nimbleness in negotiating the music's fast and virtuosic turns.

Soprano Natalia Kumkova had a lion's share of the programme in a fine selection of art songs. In Liszt's Pace Non Trovo (I Find No Peace), a setting of Petrarch's Sonnet No.104, a rich and wide vocal range was immediately established, even if her sung Italian was not particularly discernible. She was far more at home in five of Rachmaninov's romances, which were a joy from start to end.

In these, she poured out her heart with the typical wistfulness and melancholy found in songs like The Answer, Lilacs and A Dream. Has there been a more eloquent expression of contentment than Zdes Khorasho (How Beautiful It Is Here) from this usually dour composer? Kumkova and her husband Vergazov truly brought out the essence of being Russian.

The spot previously occupied by violinist Alexander Souptel was now filled by his successor as Concertmaster of the SSO, Igor Yuzefovich, who was just appointed to the post this year. While some might miss "old" Sasha's winking and wily gypsy imitations, "young" Igor impressed with his lofty but understated authority in Tchaikovsky's Melodie from Souvenir D'un Lieu Cher and the infectiously lilting Valse-Scherzo.

Gershwin figured in the second half, first with Kumkova in Summertime from Porgy And Bess and the tribute to the Viennese waltz called By Strauss. Yuzefovich also returned in Igor Frolov's Concert Fantasy On Porgy And Bess, a medley of hit songs modelled on Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy. Having spent his formative years in America, he took to numbers such as I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' and It Ain't Necessarily So like a native and with the greatest ease.

Bassist Guennadi Mouzyka joined the flock of five for Astor Piazzolla's Fugatta, with each instrument taking on a voice as contrapuntal exercise. The Argentine's most famous tango, Libertango, in Mouzyka's own arrangement, which included ad libbing from Kumkova, closed the formal programme on a high note.

And there was more, with some late-night Russian romances with the dulcet-toned Kumkova as the house lights dimmed to darkness. Down The Long Road, better known in English as Those Were The Days, got the audience clapping along and Ochi Tchorniye (Dark Eyes) sent them home with a song in their hearts.

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