Not since 2009 when the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performed here, has a pair of orchestral concerts at the Esplanade been so keenly anticipated. Tickets for the London Symphony Orchestra's performances on Wednesday and Thursday were sold out in advance, and even the gallery seats behind the orchestra had its full share of takers at $200 apiece.
The London Symphony Orchestra, which last performed here in 2004, did not offer any Elgar or Vaughan Williams but an all-Russian repertoire on the two evenings at the Esplanade Concert Hall, conducted by its Russian principal conductor Valery Gergiev.
Dmitri Shostakovich's Festive Overture was a most apt curtain-raiser, allowing the orchestra to flex its virtuoso biceps from the outset without any hint of irony. The rousing brass fanfare was followed by a series of impressive solo runs from the woodwinds, establishing the tenor of the work, which flourished on its fast paced and high octane delivery.
With its credentials laid on a plate, the orchestra then partnered the high-flying young Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, controversial 1st prize winner of the 1998 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, in Rachmaninov's ever-popular Second Piano Concerto. He is a pianist with talent and technique to burn, but one intent to make the listener hear every single note he nails on the keyboard.
Posing like a Russian rival to Lang Lang, the opening chords were taken at a lugubrious pace, the objective of which was unknown as its plodding was immediately undone by the orchestra in the tutti exposition of the main theme. Technically, Matsuev was faultless but what he chose to do with the music was often questionable, such as racing through the slow movement like a grand prix driver late for supper.
When the music needed to breathe, ruminate and reflect, there was just that constant and needless urge to showboat. At least the big melody of the finale had its moments to luxuriate - not once but twice - but that was just the foreplay to more of that "wham, bam, thank you, mam". The closing cadenza leading to the most thrilling part of the work was a blinding blur, and the crashing cascade of chords to close was calculated for maximal applause.
There were two encores, Anatol Lyadov's Musical Snuffbox, which sparkled like a diamond in Matsuev's fingers, and Grigory Ginzburg's transcription of Grieg's In The Hall Of The Mountain King from Peer Gynt, where the temptation to crucify the piano became simply too irresistible.
Rachmaninov's Third Symphony thus came as a relief in the concert's second half. His late and penultimate work, composed after years of exile from Russia, has yet to match the popularity of the Second Symphony. An over-arching sense of nostalgia and regret makes it the most Russian of his three symphonies. Under Gergiev's direction, one could feel its brooding and attempts to assuage the palpable pain with melody on its outset.
Finally, the playing had become less harried and hurried, with the orchestra truly imbibing its Slavic essence and "stewing in Russian juices", as one long-dead critic has been oft-quoted as saying. It never felt draggy through its 40 minutes, and there were many moments of genuine warmth and excitement, chief of which was in the central movement's vehement march-like episode.
Concertmaster Roman Simovic's violin became an object of beauty as the slow movement closed while clarinet, cor anglais and flute solos all shone. A more nuanced and moving performance would be hard to find, but due to the finale's short-winded and all-too-abrupt end, the applause was less than vociferous. The curtain calls were brief and the encore of Prokofiev's March from The Love For Three Oranges greeted more politely than lustily.
It was strange to note that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra received a standing ovation at the BBC Proms in London in September, while hardly a soul stirred to rise for the London Symphony Orchestra in Singapore. Was the closing work too subtle, the audience too reticent, too measly or too discerning? One can only hope that the all-Prokofiev programme in the second evening is more warmly received.