Concert review: Maestro Litton layers polish, balance and nuances

REVIEW / CONCERT

SSO SUBSCRIPTION CONCERT - LITTON & BAVOUZET

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Litton (conductor), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Friday

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) can never be accused of being capricious in the selection of conductors, with current music director Shui Lan and past principal guest conductor each having tenures of more than two decades.

Last Friday evening, American conductor Andrew Litton appeared as the SSO's new principal guest conductor. He has directed to broad acclaim as SSO guest conductor since 2013 and the concert bode well for the future.

He chose to open with the Singapore premiere of October by Shostakovich, a 13-minute symphonic poem. One of his least-known orchestral works, it bears many of the hallmarks of the composer's sombre and full-blooded statecommissioned pieces, mixed with a quieter, song-like middle section.

The SSO has consistently done well with heavy-hitting late Romantic repertoire and larger-scale Russian works, so it was not a surprise that it would perform well in the work, October.

There was an initial trace of hesitance as winds and strings adjusted to Litton's beat, but quality of sound and musical line were superb. Beyond the usual power and conviction that the SSO often brings in performance, Litton layered in polish, balance and much welcome nuances in dynamics and tempo.

October, like many of Shostakovich's heavier works, is prone to over-the-top, bombastic reading, but Litton's astute direction, backed by the SSO musicians, who were in excellent form, made this a very uplifting performance of a piece that deserves to be heard more often.

French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's pick for his concerto was in no way less demanding than October. In fact, the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Bela Bartok is a bold, uncompromising work - devilishly demanding for a soloist and quite a challenge for the audience.

Litton is a highly accomplished pianist in his own right and the Litton-Bavouzet pairing, supported by a percussion section that Bartok applies to the fullest, was highly successful. The concerto has a very technical and percussive solo piano part, which Bavouzet handled with total ease, sometimes adding a hint of jazz to the playing, which felt appropriate.

Bavouzet's playing of Bartok's often harsh and dissonant music was brilliant throughout, attaining excitement and energy, but with precision and flair. The timpani has a major role in the work and principal timpanist Christian Schioler was a most able subsidiary soloist in the concerto.

Bartok loved the pairing of piano and percussion, and he gave directions to position the percussion section right behind the piano.

This was not followed for this performance, which seems a shame, as the distance between musicians took away some of the immediacy of their musical intercourse.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 topped off the high-potency programme.

This is another work that stretches all parts of the orchestra and, as in the Shostakovich and Bartok, Litton elevated the performance by bringing refinement and nobility through his direction.

The opening fanfare by unison horns, echoed by the trumpets, was stirringly majestic. Both sections were in scintillating form and this was followed by very finely honed string and woodwind playing.

Compared with music director Shui's sometimes no-holds-barred direction, Litton managed the SSO's dynamics with a tighter rein, making the ultimate climaxes all the more impressive.

The third movement, marked pizzicato ostinato, has the string playing "pizzicato" (plucked) throughout. The wind playfully join in later, with several piccolo outbursts, played brilliantly by Roberto Alvarez. The very high-quality string pizzicati and wind-playing leads directly into the triumphal final movement, where the playing becomes loud and very energetic. To their credit, the precision and quality of sound was sustained right up to the finale.

Litton brought a sense of ease, even joy, to the closing movements of the symphony, which is seldom heard in SSO concerts. This was most welcome. After all, there is nothing that says musicians should not look (or sound) happy when performing an epic symphony.

If this concert is anything to go by, like his predecessor, Litton should be on track for a long and happy partnership with the SSO.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'Happy partnership'. Print Edition | Subscribe