Singapore Symphony Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall

Zhou Long
The Rhyme of Taigu
Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25
The Isle of the Dead, Op.29
La mer – three symphonic sketches

Stephen Hough (piano)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui

Reviewed by: Bob Briggs

Reviewed: 11 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Zhou Long first came to my attention with his work Two Poems from Tang, which was a finalist in the 1997 Masterprize competition. Since then he’s gone on to bigger things and The Rhyme of Taigu, which was written in 2003, uses an unashamedly populist language, which is packed with clichés and lots of action, but no substance. There’s what appears to be a car chase in there, a bit of Cowboy fiddling, for a couple of bars, lots of poor Hollywood, much fast and furious music and no discernable personality. At 15 minutes it overstayed its welcome and, despite the brilliant advocacy of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, I could find no real point to the piece. However, like so many contemporary scores, it was filled with percussion and the section was kept very busy.

Stephen Hough. ©Grant HiroshimaStephen Hough gave a subdued, and somewhat charmless, account of the dazzling Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto which never really got off the ground. He played well but the piano didn’t ring with the sparkling ideas that Mendelssohn packs into his score.

Rachmaninov’s musical portrait of Arnold Böcklin’s painting is filled with foreboding and the disjoined rhythm is supposed to signify the motion of the boat as the souls pass to The Isle of the Dead. Lan Shui built a fine climax as the music progressed but there was a distinct lack of a clear sense of line, where the music was going, and because of this failure, on the conductor’s part, to see the direction of the piece; it felt interminable.

La mer wasn’t much better. A lack of mystery and tension gave the music a bland feeling and when Lan Shui wanted to create excitement he simply increased the tempo. Again, there was little, or no, sense of line. The finale was rushed and thus the final statement of the motto theme was muffed, failing to make the impact it is supposed to.

Two encores were offered. Leonard Bernstein’s Candide Overture was brilliant, but again rushed, and Bach’s ‘Air on the G String’ showed the string section off to full advantage. The Singapore Symphony is still a young orchestra – only 32 this year – and it is well-drilled, but too much so, and I found myself wishing for the human element to enter into the performances and for someone, anyone, to make a mistake and prove their humanity. Lan Shui was too inflexible in his direction and this made for an unsatisfactory evening in the concert hall.

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