The choice of Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No.1 was, for Russia-born Igor Yuzefovich, a bold but natural call. He has obvious affection for the music.
The work is dedicated to the great Russian violinist David Oistrakh, and both he and Shostakovich spent much time revising it to its final form, a work that demands great technique and intellect. Unusually it is written in four movements - slow-fast-slow-fast - and avoids the overt virtuosity found in other concertos by Russian composers.
Yuzefovich has already made his mark with his polished and thoughtful solos as Singapore Symphony Orchestra's concertmaster, but brought things to a whole new level in the opening Nocturne of the concerto. His soulful, plaintive playing at the concert on Saturday in the Esplanade Concert Hall, was immediately captivating, and his gradually increasing volume and intensity of vibrato drew the audience along to an impassioned climax.
A typically relentless Shostakovich Scherzo followed. The SSO's accompaniment, which up to then was admirably restrained occasionally rose above the soloist, but his range in articulation was superb, and he was able to add shade and colour to a movement that is sometimes treated rather mechanically. His expressiveness came to the fore once again the third movement Passacaglia, which has an extended, deeply emotional cadenza.
The final Burlesque was just in full flow when a broken string interrupted matters, and Yuzefovich had to hastily swap instruments with the concertmaster for the final minutes of the concerto. This was unfortunate, but not uncommon in live performance. It barely detracted from the very convincing performance, and heartfelt applause greeted the soloist on the conclusion of the concerto.
Austrian conductor Hans Graf has had a distinguished career as music director of the Houston Symphony, and as a guest conductor to top orchestras around the world. He provided able support to Yuzefovich in the Shostakovich concerto, and directed a very polished Beethoven Egmont overture.
Graf continued in the vein of great precision and elegance in his reading of Beethoven's Symphony No.7. There was much to enjoy in the performance - great dynamic shading and rhythmic accuracy, and excellent balance, with the exception of a principal flute that sounded over eager through much of the symphony.
The conductor's tempos were classically broad and not rushed. Many conductors take Beethoven's marking of allegretto (fairly brisk) for the slow second movement with a grain of salt. Graf's tempo was much closer to andante (a walking pace), and with the choice of very Mozartean articulation it took away some of the depth of emotion that one yearns for in a late Beethoven symphony.
The third movement Scherzo was the most compelling, with the second horn Gao Jian's syncopated calls perfectly executed. The finale was rhythmic and tidy, but sounded restrained. Fellow Austrian conductor Nicholas Harnoncourt once said that "(music) begins to get interesting when it played on the edge of catastrophe". A touch of edginess would have done wonders for this performance.