Spirited Mozart sounds and intense Brahmns performance in SSO concert

Austrian conductor Gunter Neuhold and British pianist Christian Blackshaw were at the helm with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra yesterday, on the second of two nights of Mozart and Brahms at the Victoria Concert Hall (VCH).

The opening work needs no introduction to almost any audience. The serenade for strings Eine kleine Nachtmusik, or A Little Night Music by Mozart, is so well known that one sometimes feels that it is not treated with due respect in performance.

This was not the case at all at the concert, as Neuhold directed a small ensemble without music score, with just four violins in each section, bringing it closer to its original scoring for string quartets.

This worked superbly in performance. It was a spirited reading, miles from the overly romantic Mozart performed by oversized ensembles that is sometimes heard.

Neuhold conducted a stylish interpretation, choosing comfortable tempos that brought out the inner voices and harmonic wit in the music.

The SSO strings' prudent use of vibrato and bow, coupled with taut ensemble, elevated the serenade to its rightful position as a serious but immensely enjoyable work.

The addition of horns, woodwinds and some additional strings marked Christian Blackshaw's return to the stage for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 19. Blackshaw has a sterling reputation for his Mozart, and performed the Concerto No. 24 with the SSO to great acclaim in 2013.

The natural, flowing writing belies the technical demands of the piece, as does Blackshaw's elegance and lack of fuss at the keyboard. The concerto flew by, feeling much shorter than the advertised 28 minutes. Blackshaw obliged with a substantial encore - a captivating performance of Schubert's Impromptu Opus 90 No. 3.

A further bolstering of strings, brasses and timpani was called for in Brahms' Third Symphony. Neuhold conducted a thoroughly convincing reading of the symphony - intense, coherent, and peppered with the geniality that arises every now and again in Brahms' music.

The SSO winds played with notable sensitivity. Already sounding more nuanced and delicate than their usual in the piano concerto, they were stronger but still wonderfully balanced in the symphony, and principal horn Han Chang Chou's solos were very fine indeed.

The re-opening of the Victoria Concert Hall (VCH) provides the SSO the opportunity to programme some smaller scale concerts, repeated over two nights. It takes time for a the acoustics at a new or renovated hall to reach its full potential, with many adjustments, seen and unseen being made along the way, but huge strides have been made.

Last night's concert and the two sessions of the Singapore International Violin Competition's Mozart concerto finals earlier last week, where the international jury gave very positive comments on the hall's sound, show just how much progress has been made.

The sound of the piano, aided no doubt by Blackshaw's exquisite touch, was remarkably clear, full and even.

A smaller concert hall may not evoke the sense of grandeur or occasion of a 1,500-seat grand concert hall but the warmth and immediacy of a smaller hall has its place. Singapore now has an excellent venue for recitals, chamber music and symphonic works of this scale to complement the Esplanade's fine concert hall.