Concert review: Spring Symphony by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall

April 18

For this concert conducted by its Music Director Shui Lan, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra dispensed with the usual overture or suite as curtain-raiser and went straight to the concertante works. The soloist was SSO principal cellist Ng Pei Sian, who got straight down to performing Sang Tong's Fantasy For Cello & Orchestra.

Sang (1923-2011) was the nom de plume of Zhu Jingqing, a former president of the Shanghai Conservatory and pioneering modernist composer in the manner of the Second Viennese School. His atonal works were destroyed by the Red Guards, and what remained included this rather unthreatening Fantasy of 1950, which evokes the same feelings of passion and oriental nostalgia as in the much better known Butterfly Lovers.

Ng gave as much he could in its 10 minutes of elegiac thoughts alternating with lively folk dance material, which in no way outstayed its welcome. Sufficiently warmed up, this served as a prelude to Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor (1919), which was the English composer's last great work. Scarred and tormented by the wholesale slaughter of the First World War, this was his idea of a requiem without voices.

Despite his relative youth, Ng has the full measure of its catharsis, translating into playing of depth and true soul-searching. His opening solo was an impassionate and prolonged sigh, echoed by the darkly-shaded violas and soon the pall of grief descended. Despite that, nowhere was the playing made to sound lugubrious. And when feathery lightness was called, albeit briefly in the Scherzo, the emotions were muted but the pain still keenly felt.

This built up to an emotional high in the Adagio, where the full-throated oration of Ng's 1764 Giovanni Marchi cello reached its zenith. The final march was all the more poignant when the first movement's lament returned, now with a devastating finality as Ng slid to the recesses of the cello's bottom register. The encore featured a third consecutive elegy, Gabriel Faure's famous Elegie with Ng accompanied by seven cellists from the section he leads. It was a moving moment of cello camaraderie and intense music-making.

Now, what the concert needed was a lift from the doom and gloom, and a spring in its step. That duly arrived in Schumann's First Symphony, nicknamed the Spring Symphony, directed from memory by conducted Shui. Those who decried Schumann's orchestration as poor may have to revise their opinion as this was an exhilarating a performance as one could get.

Tempos were brisk, as expected from Shui, but without sacrificing orchestral details. The opening fanfare sounded definitive, and the slow introduction melted away into an energetic Allegro. Never sounding harried or hectic, the fresh sprouts had sprung into life and carried on vitally through the rest of the work.

The slow movement unfolded majestically like some Beethovenian Adagio, but that did not tarry for long as the ensuing Scherzo and joyous finale erupted with an irresistible energy. Even amid the good-natured rowdiness, one would not have missed the French horn chorale answered by Jin Ta's solo flute cadenza near the end that was lovingly shaped. It is these nuances that separate a great performance from a merely good one.