English pianist Paul Lewis, soloist for the Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor" has made waves in recent years for his performances of Beethoven and Schubert, and in 2010 was the first pianist to perform the complete Beethoven piano concertos at the BBC Proms.
On Thursday evening at the Victoria Concert Hall, he made an immediate impression, showing controlled authority in the opening chords of the concerto. Conductor Shui Lan and the SSO also opened confidently, but by the next solo entry it became clear that Lewis would also bring to his interpretation of the concerto a depth of emotion and the intellect that his teacher Alfred Brendel is so admired for.
Lewis produced a powerful, generous tone in the louder passages and his technique was impeccable. He was equally impressive in the way he expressed the humanity that lurks in Beethoven's less showy lyrical passages. The second movement was marred by less than pristine horn and woodwind entries, but the solo passages were so beautifully rendered that the movement sounded unusually brief, and the powerful third movement seemed to creep up on the audience all too quickly.
Lewis received a very warm reception for the performance, but it felt as if some in the audience were expecting more fire and dramatics from the soloist. In truth it was all there - well thought out, and exquisitely balanced. This was a thoroughly satisfying performance of the greatest of Beethoven's piano concertos, by a pianist whose return to the Singapore stage is eagerly anticipated.
The big work for the evening was of course the Symphony No. 9, "Choral". From the opening string notes Shui signalled a very high energy reading of Beethoven's most ambitious and extensive symphonic work. Dynamic changes were dramatic, and tempos ranged from brisk to breakneck. It largely worked, though string swells in the first movement and wind passages in second movement scherzo sometimes felt rushed and breathless.
The highlight of the symphony, of course, is the last movement which called on the forces of the 65-strong combined chorus (made up of the BBC Singers and the Singapore Symphony Chorus) and the vocal quartet. Bass-baritone Derek Welton had the opening entry, which was most convincing and commanding. The performance as a quartet was also highly commendable, although soprano Erin Wall's initial entries could have blended better. The chorus was in equally good form, and this was a rousing, powerful performance.
From the outset the sight of the large orchestra and almost 70 singers gave rise to concerns that even this relatively scaled-down ensemble (there were 90 singers at the 1824 premiere of the symphony) would be too large for the hall. Additional acoustic damping, visible around the stage and hall, helped to a certain extent, and the volumes were never uncomfortably loud, but the hall sounded dry, with little acoustic bloom or reverb.
This was an ambitious plan - to present two great works by Beethoven, with top soloists, the highly regarded BBC Singers and an in-form Singapore Symphony Chorus over three nights. The Emperor Concerto was a great triumph. As for the Choral Symphony, it was arguably too much of a squeeze for the Victoria Concert Hall.