Concert review: SSO performs Mozart a little patchily while Beethoven is strong

In the second of three concerts in a busy week, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) performed a concert featuring two mainstays of the classical and early romantic period by Mozart and Beethoven, with conductor Thomas Zehetmair doubling up as violin soloist with his wife Ruth Killius on the viola.

The duo have performed Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante For Violin, Viola And Orchestra often enough that it was evident that the work is well within their technical abilities.

Zehetmair, in particular, played with rich, even tone and was the more steady of the pair during the performance last Saturday at Victoria Concert Hall.

The small accompanying SSO ensemble produced a warm, refined sound, much in the style of the Salzburg Mozarteum, with which Zehetmair is closely associated.

There were shortcomings, however, and neither orchestra nor soloists were able to find the pulse in the music and ensemble was lacking.

In spite of Zehetmair consistently conducting the orchestra when not playing his solo passages, the left and right sides of the stage were never perfectly in time with each other.

One questions if four cellos and three basses playing a single Mozart bass line was an overkill. To their credit, the soloists were able to pair up perfectly in their tandem passages, but Killius needed to adjust throughout the work to be in sync with the orchestra for her solos.

When Zehetmair returned in the second half yielding a baton, it was as if a totally different orchestra was on stage as the foibles heard in the first half simply vanished.

Composed just a quarter of a century after the Sinfonia Concertante, the Symphony No. 3 by Beethoven, Eroica, was considered a radical work, breaking new ground in emotional depth and complexity.

Zehetmair's conducting was just what the Beethoven needed. Intense and focused, he banished any uncertainty about pulse and rhythm. The cellos and basses were crisp and articulate again and overall balance was much improved.

Zehetmair led a fresh, modern reading of the Eroica Symphony, with comfortable tempos and a generally robust approach. There was room for calmer playing in the parts of the second movement, where lower strings sometimes overshadowed the quieter woodwind solo passages.

In the third movement Scherzo, Marc-Antoine Robillard led a sterling horn section in a robustly musical chorus and Zehetmair directed a final movement that was stirring but not overblown.

This evening's symphony, the most accomplished symphonic performance this reviewer has heard to date at the new Victoria Concert Hall, signals that the SSO is getting more comfortable in the still-evolving acoustics of the hall.

The full house is also a positive sign - that an evening of Mozart and Beethoven can draw an audience to Victoria Concert Hall just as Mahler and Rachmaninov can fill the Esplanade.