An orchestra with the virtuoso touch, the 96-strong Singapore Symphony has widely impressed on recent visits to Europe. Last year, under extravagantly gifted Chinese-born music director, Lan Shui, the musicians made their BBC Proms debut. Instituted in 1979, the SSO is a crisp, characterful band, boasting a sonic signature somewhere between American platinum (winds, brass, percussion) and European bronze (violas, cellos, double basses).
The fearlessly programmed current season (July-May) has already featured Demidenko, Hough, Kavakos, Grimaud, Goerner and Vogler, with Steinbacher, Tan and Postnikova to come. Among guest conductors, Dausgaard (Mahler 10), Dutoit (Saint-Saëns 3), Rozhdestvensky (‘Leningrad’), Casadesus (Fantastique), Kamu (‘Eroica’, Brahms/Schoenberg) and Neeme Järvi (Brahms/Rubbra) would have to rank high on anyone's list.
The SSO is a classy concern with sponsorship, man-power, and clout. Not to mention a purpose-built state-of-the-art “performing home”, the Esplanade, a spacious 1800-seater with organ, inaugurated in 2002 at a cost of 600 million $SG. In keeping with modern Singaporean values, this is a gleaming facility, the mid/high frequencies circling and unrestricted. Arguably, sitting centre stalls, I harked after the damper bass resonances you sometimes find in the best European venues – that kind of indefinable infrasonic vibration which lends subliminal power and awe, psychic mystery, to a composer's soundworld. But the ambience and templum calm of the place made up for any shortcomings.
Vladimir Ashkenazy, these days an elderly white-haired gentleman who rushes on and off, cheerfully waving to everyone, opened this Rachmaninov Gala with the 1912 Vocalise, a test for any orchestra not fully warmed up (which is why it's more usually an encore). It was elegantly delivered, the pulsing farewell of the closing bars, violas stage-right, paced and balanced to perfection.
With the Symphonic Dances of 1940, Rachmaninov's “last spark”, inspired by Fokine and premiered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, he unleashed a drama cloaked in memories (the 'lost' First Symphony, the unfinished Scythians ballet, ballrooms no more) ... past demons … malignant apparitions (‘Dies irae’) overcome (the orthodox hymn ‘Blessed be the Lord’).
Ashkenazy’s pre-eminence as a pianist and conductor in Rachmaninov coupled with a sophisticated orchestra that has this music in its system (the SACD BIS recording of the Symphonies under Lan Shui is required listening) was always going to promise something special. He shaped each movement with care and depth, phrasing in long paragraphs and structuring the crescendos with an inexorable sense of tension and climax (irreverent thought: did Rachmaninov get his crescendos from Rossini?).
The saxophone solo in the first movement was memorably lithe and lingering. Equally the violin of the valse triste viennoiserie in the second (Igor Yuzefovich, the SSO's Moscow-born concertmaster). The exacting woodwind interplay, the rounded quality of string pizzicato, the corporate attack and bite of the players en masse commanded at every turn: of all the great Romantic pianist-composers, this performance seemed to celebrate, no one surely was more master, more a colourist, of the orchestral medium than Rachmaninov. A sonorous, many layered, banquet.
Billed as the draw of the evening, the Third Piano Concerto is a work that suits the role: glittering pianism, resounding melodies, exotic fantasy, epic peroration, thrills by the plenty, battling conflicts, more than a loving caress or two. Towering above Ashkenazy in height and girth, Alexei Volodin, winner of the 2003 Géza Anda Competition and a former Moscow student of Eliso Virsaladze, is a precision fighter-pianist. He can do anything, his accuracy rate is phenomenal, he projects like a laser beam. He doesn't let lapses in ensemble or the transient loose pulse put him off. And he's got some handy quick-draw tricks up his sleeve – for instance, the suddenly muted very quite reprise (the theme at the end of the first movement, pianissimo notwithstanding; the close of the first encore – Chopin's F-minor Mazurka from Opus 7).
On this occasion, however, that was about it. He struck me as a man good at pumping iron but weak at the wrought ironery. Unapologetically, he drowned the orchestra (if Ashkenazy was persuaded to hold it in check, it was a mistake), resulting in little of the supporting detail coming through, and virtually no opportunity for meaningful dialogue. Maybe he didn't warm to the Steinway, but from the very first onset of legato-marked semiquavers his way with accents and articulation seemed strangely rutted, mannered even, presaging passage after passage of either exaggerated (compensating?) passion-and-swirl or super-forced chest-voice. By the time we reached the cadenza (the longer, more muscular of the two Rachmaninov wrote, predictably) and then re-grouped for the thundering gallop and ‘big tune’ of the closing pages twenty minutes or so later, it was clear that, in going for the pugilistic knockout, Volodin's priority was 150-percent gesture, scything octaves, and missile-chords to flatten a cavalry charge. Finding magic, tenderness, his feminine side? Not on this showing – if it was ever on the cards. His admirers gave him a standing ovation.