Concert review: Tengku Irfan, the 'Malaysian Mozart', shines alongside the SSO

Having foreign child prodigies perform concertos with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra is nothing new. Not since the first coming of the 15-year-old Lang Lang in 1997 has a young soloist made quite an impact as 16-year-old Malaysian pianist Tengku Irfan, in this outing at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Friday.

Presently attending Juilliard Pre-College, Irfan studies piano performance, conducting and composing. His works have already been performed by the New York and Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestras.

In Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, there may have been initial fears when his entry with successive C minor scales seemed brusque and over-emphatic. Catching the attention in so startling a manner, he soon eased off with a reading that balanced passion with lyricism, and carefully honed nuances. A young person's vitality but one imbued with a mature outlook well beyond his years made this a compelling outing.

When one might have expected him to craft his own cadenzas, Irfan deferred to Beethoven's wisdom instead but marked his personality by highlighting its contours. In his hands, the slow movement became sheer poetry. Discretely accompanied by the orchestra, this was an oasis of calm before the finale's high spirits. In the latter, his crisp articulation, lightness of touch and joie de vivre were distinguishing features which won the audience's wholehearted approval. Irfan is still young, but what a shining future he has in front of him.

Attending the concert was former Malaysia prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his wife. It would not be lost on him that his far-reaching policies in promoting Western culture and arts in Malaysia (including setting up the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra) helped make this Malaysian Mozart possible.

Also propitious was the programming of the Second Symphony by Sir Edward Elgar, from the land that colonised both Malaya and Singapore for well over a century. This symphony was prompted by the death of King Edward VII in 1910. Playing for over 50 minutes, the work could have been plagued by pomposity and bombast but young Singaporean conductor Darrell Ang kept taut his rein, coaxing a performance that was cogent and united by an inner tension.

Nobilmente was a term Elgar used in a number of his works, which described playing in a noble and dignified manner that has become almost synonymous with being British. The opening movement oozed nobilmente, but within that exterior, Ang was able to bring out a sense of mystery and sadness which eschewed sentimentality. While the brass stole most of the show, the mood of the slow movement was perfectly set by elegiac strings, which ushered in a funereal march that gradually built up to high emotion.

The mercurial third movement had moments that ran close to hysteria but never descended to caricature. A good flowing tempo dictated the finale, with an obligatory fugato for its climax, but the best was left to the last, in a quite spectacular unwinding of the earlier tension. It was as if the symphony was giving up its ghost, but doing so with great subtlety and grace in quiet closure.

The encore, Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations, performed with true feeling and pathos, was dedicated to the memory of British conductor Frank Shipway, who was to have led this concert but tragically died in a vehicular accident last year. With that moving tribute, Ang led his troops triumphantly off the stage.

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