Friday, October 11, 2013

TPO Brahms: The Complete Symphonies

13 September 2013 and 11 October 2013
School of the Arts Concert Hall

The Philharmonic Orchestra, Singapore (TPO) loves to perform symphonic cycles. It all started with the ambitious goal of tackling the complete Beethoven symphonies in 2003, and since then they had covered the works from other composers such as Schumann, Schubert and Sibelius. This year, perhaps to celebrate the ten years since their Beethoven cycle, TPO set their eyes on the symphonies from a master whom was considered by many to be his successor - Brahms. Despite having only four symphonies to cover, the orchestra chose to perform them in two intense filled concerts. The First and Fourth symphonies were performed in the first night while the second, almost a month later, featured the less popular inner symphonies. Both concerts were held in the School of the Arts Concert Hall, a smaller venue as compared to the more popular Esplanade Concert Hall, of course, but the acoustics were comparable (at least from the second row of the circle seats, where I was sitting for both nights).

Brahms's Fourth Symphony was selected to lead the series, an excellent choice as it shows off the strength of the orchestra. No nuances were left unchecked despite the straightforwardness of the music, and the meticulous attention to details gave the symphonic voice of the orchestra a magnificence in tone. This could be felt at various points throughout the cycle, especially in the Third Symphony. All melodies, be it the prominent ones or the smaller subtle phrases, were beautifully played and made even more breathtaking by the powerful support of the basses.

I was also amazed by the winds and brasses. Every solo passages - especially from the flutes, oboes, clarinets and horns - was played with a finesse that's common only amongst professional orchestras, and they were undoubtedly the centre of attention for both nights. Brahms was a horn player himself, and like most German composers of his time, he loved to invoke the forest through the use of the soothing tones from this instrument. TPO's horns gave splendid performances - I believed they would have met the expectations of even the grumpy composer - in the second movement of the Fourth Symphony and the last movement of the First (the third movement of the Third would have been amazing if the tempo dictated by the orchestra was less rushed). The oboe solos were also fantastic; Veda Lin's performance in the Allegretto of the Second symphony was in my opinion the most memorable moment of the cycle. The flutes and clarinets would have gained special mentions here too, had Brahms decided to decorate his music by giving their parts more dramatic emphasis.

Lim Yau was evidently a veteran on the podium. He internalised the programme; even without the scores he communicated clearly to the musicians and the audience his meticulous design of the music through his clear gestures. The tempos he chose revealed a high degree of patience in his music making, but he could be wild at times too, mercilessly stressing the musicians through the stormy moments especially in the First and Second symphonies.

Of course, even the most enjoyable concerts would not be perfect at every aspect. In general, there was a noticeable lack of tight coordination in the violins, especially during the virtuosic sections, when a few members could be seen (and even worse, heard) struggling to keep up with the momentum. Intonation issues were sometimes painfully outstanding, in particular during the more complex but exquisite melodies. There were also some parts where Brahms's diligent attempts to colorise his music was neglected, notably in the Andante of the Third Symphony, and the monotony towards the end of the second theme cost them an otherwise solid rendition.

I was also mildly irritated by the amount of noise generated from the clumsiness of the musicians; they need to master the art of turning the pages of their music scores silently between movements, or even during the music itself. It is a shame to have great music marred by trivial things like this, and sadly it is a mistake that is common amongst non-professional orchestras. Also, technical issues are unforgivable, such as failing to dim the stage lights (during the first two movements of the Second Symphony). Granted, it did lift the mood for the dark second movement a little, but I strongly suspect it was a happy mistake rather than a deliberate choice.

Despite all these, it's hard not to be romantic about the spirit in their music. Even though the strain of performing two symphonies was evident and their fatigue might have caused the momentum and togetherness of the orchestra to waver a few times in the last movements, TPO kept their spirits high, recovering swiftly each time as they mustered the strength to close both concerts with great finales. It might not have been perfect, but as a first time attendee of a complete symphonic cycle by TPO, I felt that this was a well executed series, and I'm sure that many on stage had matured as musicians over the course of the preparation. I will definitely keep an eye out for their next complete cycle, but of course I hope that more of such projects would be undertaken by other orchestras or soloists here in Singapore. To summarise: well done, TPO.