Darkness in Light – At the Singapore Symphony 6 December 2013

It was 6th December – Finland’s Independence Day. And I was attending a concert featuring some of Finland’s best: Osmo Vänskä , the composer Sebastian Fagerlund and violinst Pekka Kuusisto. The stars seemed to be all in the right places.

Mr Kuusisto was here in Singapore to perform Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund’s Violin Concerto, “Darkness in Light”. Considered one of Finland’s most interesting young composers, the music of Fagerlund (b.1972) has been described as an “appealing mix of pulsating rhythmic layers, expansive gestures and undulating extended chords. Sometimes these elements are separate, sometimes blended – but the texture is always intuitively compelling. Brimming with carefully crafted details and elegant transitions, Fagerlund’s music has one clear direction: forward.” (Finnish Music Quarterly http://www.fmq.fi/2011/03/sebastian-fagerlund-full-speed-ahead/)

Photo by Sirpa RäihäI have never heard his music until now. To be frank, it is not easy to describe – but it is certainly very impressive. The opening of the concerto is ferocious as a fast-approaching storm, with skittering winds and wild energy. I pictured swirls of rain, torrents dancing. An exhilarating sense of flow and rhythm propels the first movement, “Energico”. The colours evoked by both orchestra and solo violin are spectacularly varied, with some truly alien sounds from the latter during cadenzas. An array – an aurora – of percussion, including piano with strings plucked directly by hand in the second movement, the “Lento intenso”, added to the post-post-modern soundscape of our century. The musical material warps through the orchestra with unstoppable energy in a multitude of hues, streaks and waves.

My words cannot do it justice, so I invite you to watch and listen to it yourself:

If you are interested in a recording, one is available on BIS with Pekka Kuusisto: Fagerlund: Darkness in Light

The sounds conjured by guest conductor Osmo Vänskä and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra ranged from ethereal otherworldly landscapes to mighty brass paeans reminiscent of one such occurrence heard in Sibelius’s Fifth – a work to come later in tonight’s programme.

I came to this concert  because of Osmo Vänskä. He is, simply, a hero to me. The maestro has been instrumental in my education of Sibelius – he was simply revelatory with his work on BIS, bringing to me vast and precious treasure troves of rare Sibelius. His first visit to Singapore back in 2010 was to conduct Mahler, a matter I lamented slightly about. But on this night, Fagerlund’s concerto was an unexpectedly enjoyable bonus to the symphonic main course: Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. As one of the first conductors to record the original version of the Fifth, Vänskä is unique, and thus to me, this concert was a must to attend.

More bonuses heaped upon bonuses, as in a rather unusual arrangement, literally, maestro Vänskä began the concert by taking up the 1st clarinet in Dvořák’s Serenade in D minor, Op.44. Together, the ensemble of 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, cello and double bass evoked a beautiful atmosphere of quintessential Dvořák. Melodious, summery, nostalgic, “European”, their playing perfectly poised. And speaking of poise, one member of the ensemble pretty much stole the most of the show – Ng Pei Sian’s lively and poetic cello-playing was a thorough joy to watch.

Vänskä’s recordings of the Sibelius’s symphonies always have a special touch to them. When they are really good, they are an absolute revelation. Suffice to say, the performance tonight was simply the best “live” performance of the Fifth I’ve ever heard. Even the flubbing of the opening dawn calls by the horns, and some unsteady woodwind work in the beginning did not ultimately spoil my experience. The finale was taken very fast. The SSO strings kept up dutifully, unified and together, with impressive precision and energy – and the swan hymn was born out of that sweeping soundscape completely naturally and with grace and grandeur. The orchestra simply glowed. The E-flat gradually, and with a smoothness and logic rarely achieved “live” – evolved into the magnificent C major climax. My mouth was open with admiration. The triumphant brass paeans in the finale shimmered and blazed with confidence and life; the final life-affirming chords were perfectly forged, the intervals between the silences masterly timed by Vänskä, each chord reverberating in the Esplanade hall, booming with nature’s mysteries and answers. There I heard the silence that speaks, as Sibelius would’ve put it himself.

The date was 6 December – Finland’s Independence Day. Sitting at row E, I was not surprised to overhear snatches of conversation in Finnish. The man next to me had a Nokia phone. It reminded me, a little nostalgically, of the time I spent in Lahti and Helsinki last year. During the interval, Finns gathered at an embassy gathering, but I made my way to the queue for Pekka Kuusisto’s autograph.

“Mr Kuusisto, could you address this to ‘The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase’?” I gingerly asked. “It’s a nickname I used when I wrote about Sibelius in the past”.

“The Inkpot? That sounds familiar….. Oh it’s you!” To my delight, it seems he might have remembered the name. :)


After the concert, I was still wondering how I might be able to meet and shake Mr Vänskä’s hand. As I was waiting for the crowds to make their way out of the hall, I heard my name being called by a couple of friends.  One of them, let’s call him HP, said aloud that he had been wondering where “Mr Sibelius” had been all night, while the other, let’s call her SY, gave me directions to reach backstage. We paused at the door of the hall to shake the hand of Mr Fagerlund and I told him how much I enjoyed his concerto, and then I made my way backstage. Or rather, to the entrance. I hung around at the door, wondering if the maestro might exit this way. To be honest, I wasn’t hopeful. But as I inched closer to the door, I spotted a familiar face just inside. It was Dr Chang, the local pianophile and reviewer, and not to my surprise he was inspecting his latest autographed CD. :) Anyway, I asked him for help, and with the kind aid of one of the SSO bassists and the generosity of the security guard, I was led in.

Mr Vänskä stepped out of his guest room just as we arrived. I was so happy – it was almost the next best thing to meeting Sibelius himself, perhaps – a master conductor of his music, a powerful spiritual link back to the composer. I told Mr Vänskä about my love and work promoting Sibelius, got him to autograph the original BIS issue of the original version of the Fifth Symphony, and showed him, using my iPad, the Sibelius Facebook Page I run. “On behalf of Sibelius,” he said genially, “Thank you.”

I plan to see him again in 2015 – he confirmed he will be doing one concert in Lahti, for the Sibelius 150th anniversary celebrations.

The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase with conductor Osmo Vänskä
The Inkpot Sibelius Nutcase with conductor Osmo Vänskä

A quiet, hushed splendour – Kavakos plays Sibelius (SSO 8 Sep 2011)

Concert Ticket (Kavakos Plays Sibelius 8 Sep 2011)While it is exciting to know that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) will soon embark on its first complete cycle of Sibelius’ seven symphonies, I was even more excited about the prelude to this cycle – Leonidas Kavakos coming here to play the Violin Concerto. It’s been more than a decade since I wrote about his debut recording of no less than the world-premiere of the original 1903/1904 version of the concerto on BIS. In that CD release, he also performed a magnificent rendition of the final version.

The “Abergavenny” Stradivarius (1724) that Kavakos played on sings wonderfully hushed pianissimi, as we heard right at the beginning of the opening movement. It was a rapt moment that captured the music’s stillness perfectly. This wondrous tranquility would be brought to full fruition in the Adagio, but to be honest, the rest of the first movement felt restrained, never quite reaching the level of conviction that Kavakos played with in the aforementioned recording for BIS. I was later told that he was not feeling well, that he had to even rehearse sitting down. Perhaps that was the reason.

The good news is that that was far from the best part of the whole concert. The Adagio was simply: very moving. The heartfelt quietude, the hushed splendour of the music in the hands of Kavakos and SSO, was truly an emotional experience that can only be experienced “live”. I had tears in my eyes. It was perhaps because I was seated so close to the stage, second row – I could see each and every delicate movement from Kavakos and his instrument as they sang sunset melancholia. The couple next to me comprised a lady who sat enraptured throughout the whole concerto, but her male friend obviously belonged to the “I came along because she needed my company” category. So what was surprising was that during the Adagio, he felt compelled to hold her hand after a few minutes into the movement, and they stayed like this for the rest of the 10-minute movement.

Leonidas Kavakos receives applause. At the Esplanade Concert Hall.

For me, someone who has listened to this work for so many years, “live” and on numerous records, I guess I really need a “live” performance of this moving intensity to remind myself again why this piece is so beautiful, why I love this composer so. Kavakos held the audience in total silence for some ten seconds after the final note of the Adagio whispered away. Nobody dared to make a sound.

The driving momentum, the confident precision of the finale’s opening theme exactly reminded me of Kavakos’ 1991 recording. The galloping rhythm is exactly right, the drive powerful but not overly so, nicely sculpted. Kavakos clearly believed in this music, holding an impassioned but measured voice throughout. At the first big orchestral tutti, I watched with delight as he turned towards the orchestra and bowed along with the massed violins that distinctively stern “marcatissimo” theme. Personally, I’d always felt that for music this stirring, if I were the soloist, I wouldn’t be able to resist playing along – so I loved it that Kavakos did.

Praise also to the SSO woodwinds and brass, especially during the  Adagio. They sounded beautiful – and bode well for their upcoming journey, especially for the Third and Fifth Symphonies.

Much to my great disappointment (but I kept it well hidden, I must admit), Kavakos did not come out to grant autographs. Apparently he was due to rush off straight to the airport after this concert. Still, he found time to give two much-appreciated encores. The Sarabanda from Partita No.2 in D minor BWV 1004, and the Andante from Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003.  The ancient voice of the 274-year-old “Abergavenny” violin did these more than ample justice. Till now, I’m still wondering if it would’ve been more worth it to trade those for an autograph session. I don’t think the rapturous audience would agree with me.

A fitting paragraph on Jean Sibelius, from the SSO programme booklet.

Kavakos in Singapore

The Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos (not to be confused with the Spartan, who did not play the violin) will be playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra on 8 September 2011. Curiously, no one, not even the SSO, has mentioned the fact that he is just about the only person in modern times to have performed the original 1903/04 version of the Sibelius Violin Concerto. He was the soloist in BIS’ 1992 world-premiere recording of the original score, which I reviewed at The Flying Inkpot in 1998 – the article is republished here.

Kavakos plays Sibelius with SSO 8 Sep 2011
SSO July-Sept 2011 Season

As far as I remember, after the recording, the score was returned to the Sibelius family. Leonidas Kavakos is thus the only violinist to have performed the original work since its one and only 1904 premire (which was a bit of a disaster by the way). In any case, this unique experience Mr Kavakos had probably makes his understanding of the concerto different from other violinists. Well worth hearing.

Here he is captured in Athens in 2008, performing the concerto (the final version). We’ll be able to catch him in Singapore on 8 September, 2011 at the Esplanade.

Somewhat inexplicably, the concerto is paired with Mahler’s First Symphony. The concert also marks the beginning of a complete symphony cycle by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu – only the second time in Singapore. The first complete Sibelius cycle was performed by The Philharmonic Orchestra under Lim Yau from 2007-2008.

Kavakos Plays Sibelius – 8 September 2011 (Thu), 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
SIBELIUS: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47
MAHLER: Symphony No.1 in D major “Titan”
Leonidas Kavakos (violin), conducted by Lan Shui. Tickets from SISTIC. [Reviewed on Dust of Hue]

The Sibelius Symphonies: Finlandia – 16 September 2011 (Fri), 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
SIBELIUS: Finlandia
LALO: Cello Concerto in D minor
SIBELIUS: Symphony No.2 in D major, Op.43
Ng Pei-Sian (Cello), conducted by Okko Kamu

The Sibelius Symphonies: Nos. 1 & 3 – 20 September 2011 (Tues), 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
SIBELIUS: Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52
MOZART: Piano Concerto No.23 in A major, K.488
SIBELIUS: Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Melvyn Tan (piano), conducted by Okko Kamu

This is Melvyn Tan’s debut with the SSO, and I for one am glad he has made it home.

The Sibelius Symphonies: Nos. 4 & 5 – 24 February 2012 (Fri), 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 4 in A minor, Op. 63
SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82
Benjamin Grosvenor (piano), conducted by Okko Kamu [Reviewed on Dust of Hue]

The Sibelius Symphonies: Nos. 6 & 7 – 3 March 2012 (Sat), 7.30pm, Esplanade Concert Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
SIBELIUS: Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 105
Marc-André Hamelin (piano), conducted by Okko Kamu [Reviewed on Dust of Hue]

(Tickets from the usual SISTIC places).

Well, the SSO programmers have done well pairing the Sibelius symphonies with famous pianists. That should fill up some seats! And hopefully give a valuable opportunity to those unfamiliar with Sibelius’ symphonies to hear these masterpieces. Yes yes, I don’t think Sibelius is as popular as he should be, and I honestly don’t imagine many will deliberately attend a concert for his symphonies. Still, a complete symphony cycle with the national orchestra is an achievement.

I’m unable to say which of these concerts would be the most worth going – they all are. Though of course if I HAD to pick one, it would be the last one with the Seventh Symphony.

Marc-André Hamelin! I hope pianophiles will stay back to hear the final and greatest symphony of Sibelius! If not, can you give me your ticket? :)

At the Singapore Symphony, 30 July 2010

I wrote my last concert reviews for The Flying Inkpot some eight years ago.  The reason why I stopped in 2002, is, well, now 8-years-old.

I know I'm not supposed to take photos inside the hall, but this bit of memory means a lot to me.

She was born earlier in the same year as the opening of the Esplanade theatres and concert hall. Fatherhood of the hands-on variety bade me slow down writing, then reluctantly give up my editorship at The Flying Inkpot. With it also went regular concertizing, as well as concentrated listening to anything more than 15 minutes long. Well luckily Sibelius is known for his conciseness. Alert readers might have noticed that as Chia Han-Leon stopped writing at the Inkpot, Continue reading At the Singapore Symphony, 30 July 2010

Klami Whirls and his Violin Concerto

Cover Illustration by Peter Schoenecker. This article was first published in 1998.

Uuno Klami
(1900 – 1961)  is considered by many as the finest 20th century, non-contemporary, Finnish composer after Jean Sibelius. Significantly, Klami’s musical style is far different from his illustrious contemporary (and in a sense, predecessor). Rather than attempt to succeed Sibelius’ “organic” methods or soundworlds, which have never been matched, Klami’s music is much closer to what most listeners would term “20th century”. At the same time, it is highly original and very atmospheric. In some cases, as in his well-known Sea Pictures, it is all atmosphere. Continue reading Klami Whirls and his Violin Concerto

Jennifer Koh replaces Pike for July 30th Sibelius

Jennifer Koh – Photo by Janette Beckman, from jenniferkoh.com

Ah the serendipitous power of the web. I was googling for information on the soloist for the Singapore Symphony’s July 30th concert, featuring the Sibelius Violin Concerto, when I came across an SSO Press Release, dated July 8, announcing that Jennifer Pike, the young UK violinist originally slated to play here, will not be able to visit due to health reasons. In her place is the American violinist Jennifer Koh, who by the way is born of Korean parents.

This is interesting, since Miss Koh has played under Osmo Vänskä, and recorded the violin concerto of another Finnish composer, Uuno Klami, under the BIS label. I’ve taken the opportunity to republish it again here at dustofhue.com. This time, I know her Korean heritage.


Anne-Sophie Mutter plays Sibelius

Photo © Anja Frers / DG

Anne-Sophie Mutter – the favourite violinst of Deutsche Grammophon (and not to mention Gramophone magazine), the beautiful blonde who gets slimmer and svelt-er with every new DG cover she graces – here performs Sibelius’ Violin Concerto. When I first heard this recording of the concerto, at the time of its release in 1995, I was not impressed. For some reason, that sinewy, “bloodless” opening did not appeal to me. This added to my general suspicion regarding the Anne-Sophie-Deutsche-Grammophon relationship (the aforementioned slimming process – compare her old albums) – one of the pioneer ones which saw the pretty bombshell always decorating the cover of the CD, hoping to ensnare the (presumably mostly male) classical CD collector.

(Notice that pretty musicians á la Mutter, von Otter, Mullova, the young Argerich, Schwarzkopf, etc. and the numerous “Sony Sopranos” always inevitably get a makeover followed by many appearances on the cover of their albums. Ugly candidates are replaced by 19th century paintings. If the musician is male, to appear on the cover, you must either be 1) handsome, 1a) a countertenor, 2) conduct well, 3) have a really expert photographer who understands “angles”; or 4) sophisticated cameras which distort reality – you know, like how Winword is not WYSIWYG.)

(But enough). I learnt my lesson three years after this album was released. Inspired by many favourable comments on her performance, I found a copy at my regular store and took it for a spin. Unlike the last time, I listened to it in full. Here’s what I heard:

Anne-Sophie Mutter
Anne-Sophie Mutter (Photo from CD)

The opening solo, which rises from the quiet darkness, is concentrated, steely, cold and desolate. But it has a sense of purpose. I find that Mutter’s interpretation is distinguished by this – whether it is just the shaping of this solo, or her vision of the entire first movement, every sub-structure (phrase, motif, theme, passage, section, movement) connects. Placed in direct and powerful contrast with the final appearance of that distinctive soaring theme, the final dash towards the end of the first movement is wrought with inevitable finality, majestic in its D-minor vision, white-hot in its energy.

Although she sometimes seems a touch distant. Regarding the comment below: yes, there is an element of truth in the suggestion that Mutter’s playing could be seen as “a series of unrelated ideas” because of this sense of distance I do detect. Indeed, if one weren’t concentrating on her playing, this would be most obvious especially in her slow passages. Alternatively, one could even say that her concentration is at fault, being perhaps too deliberate. However, this concentration of playing does not hide the fiery centre that inhabits her performance.

This seems to be the case for her rendition of the Adagio. Her cold distance may be thought of as bringing across the snowscape of Sibelius’ homeland – cold and stark on the surface, with the warmth concentrated internally. Whatever the case, whether her “ideas” seem “related” to each other or not is really a very subjective matter. Thus, it is best that the reader listen to the recording for him/herself. My writing this review is mainly to show that my assumptions when I first heard the recording were wrong (to my own ears, of course).

All this is not to say Mutter cannot emote – certainly her powerfully carved lines can burn with passion, as in the climax of said Adagio. Her control over her instrument is total, every turn every phrase executed with the understanding that her intention is the equal of her violin’s response. Listen to her pianissimos – searing in the first movement, icily clear in the second.

She soars in the manner of Heifetz, often with piercing silvery strength, with that shining tone and impassioned voice-like vibrato; and then there is the sense of mastery through her skilfully chosen rubato, the hushed diminuendo as she slows down… moulding the phrases with moving beauty.

The finale is among the most exciting I’ve ever heard. Some may say the Germans play notes strictly, but Mutter demonstrates here her ability to slide and gliss her notes next to her solidly executed staccati. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but to me it is a refreshing reading. I finally hear the famed Oistrakh harmonic gliss, which few can match, on another recording (i.e. this one) other than one by Oistrakh (best heard in the Sony Essential Classics reissue SBK47659). Couple this with her unstoppable momentum and her 100% intonation, the finale cannot but leap out at you.

The playing of the Dresden State Orchestra is best described next to the superb DG recording (ah yes, one instance when all these “D”s make sense) – crystal clear, finely balanced, always keeping the soloist centrestage, but not too close nor to distant. I have zero complaints here.

One third of the CD sleeve notes is devoted to shameless praise of Ms Mutter’s musicianship (“There are no limits to her ability to perform the countless high-wire acts…”), not surprising from DG, one of the most self-praising of labels. Please, let us judge for ourselves. But having said that, I must confess that the writer actually hits true in describing her style and energy, as well as a word we both used, “concentration”. At least the praise is deserved.

Portrait of Sibelius (1892) by Eero Järnefelt
Portrait of Sibelius (1892) by Eero Järnefelt

Coupled with the Concerto are the two Serenades for violin and orchestra. Charming but atmospherically deceptive in the Sibelian vein, they alternate in aurora-like fashion between pastoral charm and underlying darkness.

Serenade No.1, completed in 1912, is in D (major). In these performers’ hands, it is sometimes sweet, sometimes seeming to hide something. Mutter’s “distance” prevents this piece (and the next two) from becoming mere pastoral melody; instilling it with a nonchalant air of cold beauty. It is perhaps true that some listeners will find this distance irritatingly uninvolving, but somehow it seemed appropriate that the music suggests something hidden. Her violin virtually smiles at you with a twinkle in her eye. The effect can be pretty seductive…

Serenade No.2, composed in 1913, is in G (minor). Now it starts with a forlorn song for solo violin supported with Sibelius’ characteristic calm lake of string harmonies and soft timpani. Mutter’s song yearns, then steels itself with shining light, then laments. Before long, the soloist leads us into a brief dance, reminiscent of the Concerto’s finale as well as the galloping figure from the tone poem Night-Ride and Sunrise. In another violinist’s hands, I can imagine this piece can be very easily made boring – but not here: Mutter’s sense of purpose pervades nicely throughout.

The opening of the Humoresque No.1 (in D minor, like the Concerto) immediately shows Mutter’s appreciation of the Sibelian idiom, with her slightly reticent, distant entry befitting the music, followed by passages of vigorous yet playful music, made both charming and understatedly mischievious by Mutter. All ends quite suddenly.

A bit too sudden – another 30 minutes of music would easily fit into the CD. Why deny us the other five Humoresques? What a waste, for the complete set is a small but valuable treasure chest of music, particularly No.6 – my favourite – with its light combination danse macabre-Valse triste. It would have been sheer seduction to hear Ms Mutter play it. If I had the opportunity I would have also asked her to record the Rakastava Suite as well…

Violin Concerto in D minor, op.47
Serenade No.1 in D major, op.69a
Serenade No.2 in G minor, op.69b
Humoresque No.1 in D minor, op.87 no.1

Dresden State Orchestra (Staatskapelle Dresden)
conducted by André Previn
[48:42] full-price

The Violin Concerto

“Caricatures are one of the signs of growing fame.” So speaks a leading Sibelius scholar of this cartoon of the composer, drawn in 1904, the year the Violin Concerto was born.

That there are two versions might hint at the shaky start it had, starting with its premiere(s). Sibelius had arranged for the former leader of the Helsinki Orchestra and then renowned virtuoso Willy Burmeister to premiere the concerto in March 1904. Burmeister followed the progress of the work attentively, showing much interest and confidence in its musical value. But Sibelius, broke as usual, was forced to hold the premiere concert one month before the aforementioned date, just to get some cash to tide over.  But perhaps, as a big name, Burmeister would probably have attracted more attention and therefore more ticket sales. But he was unavailable to travel to Finland. Continue reading The Violin Concerto