Concert review: Kam Ning and Albert Tiu make difficult music sound easy

Violinist Kam Ning and pianist Albert Tiu. -- PHOTO: CHANG TOU LIANG
Violinist Kam Ning and pianist Albert Tiu. -- PHOTO: CHANG TOU LIANG

Here is a pub quiz question for the future: Which Singaporean violinist was the first to win a major prize in a major international violin competition? The answer would be Kam Ning, who was awarded 2nd prize at the 2001 Queen Elisabeth Violin Competition in Brussels. After all these years, she showed in a duo recital here what it takes to become a world-beater.

Sparkling Rhythms, staged at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall on Thursday, was a showcase of playing at spellbinding speeds, but there was much more to that than a mere fireworks display. In Mendelssohn's Sonata In F Major, the first movement was set alight with a nice blend of Beethovenian brio and Mozartian lightness. Her tone was always warm and reassuring, with a cantabile that delicately graced the slow movement before the prestissimo counterpoint of the ebullient finale.

Pianist Albert Tiu was in the thick of hyperactivity, supporting her in every turn with lightning reflexes and accuracy to match. A different kind of virtuosity was called for in Ravel's Sonata In G Major, where a variegated touch and subtlety in pedalling provided a sotto voce backing to the violin's musings.

The famous Blues movement was milked for all its jazzy glory, with slides and slurs galore and its punchy rhythmic staccatos timed to heady perfection. Could serious classical music ever sound sexy? Here was the evidence. The finale's Perpetuum Mobile was also a blast, conducted with a hip-swaying verve that almost disguised its immense technical pitfalls.

This duo has the ability to make difficult things sound easy. John Novacek's Four Rags was pure homespun Americana updated to the 21st century. Forget Scott Joplin's languid foursquare dances on honkytonk, these numbers were for high octane fiddling, with three fast numbers titled Intoxication, Cockles and Full Stride Ahead counterbalanced by the slower and somewhat tipsy swagger of 4th Street Rag.

Saint-Saens' Sonata No.1 In D Minor is notorious for its extremes in dynamics, putting ferocious demands on both performers. Yet its four parts telescoped into two movements were taken in their stride. A state of high tension presided over the first movement. The music was allowed to breathe in moments of calm contemplation, but soon the screws were turned.

The second movement opened with what sounded like exercises, but its "scherzo" feel made it sound anything but laboured. This was the launching pad to a most breathless finale likened to a 100 metre dash with hurdles thrown in for good measure. Kam and Tiu were unerring at this rarefied pace, which saw a photo finish greeted with tumultuous applause.

Does this duo play anything slow? As if reading this listener's mind, they obliged, as an encore, with Charlie Chaplin's Smile (from the movie Modern Times) in Claus Ogerman's bluesy arrangement. Here they took their time, lingering and luxuriating in the music's sentimental yet sensuous asides. This was a sublime way to end a truly dazzling show.