One degree north of the equator, off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, is the island republic of Singapore. An unlikely place to find classical music? The former British colony became a sovereign nation in 1965, rapidly developing into a key Asian Tiger economy. Since the 1990s Singapore has promoted itself as a “gateway between East and West”, helping the arts to flourish. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1979, grew in class and international stature, particularly since its move to the Esplanade Concert Hall in 2003.

Joseph Moog at the 2017 Singapore International Piano Festival © Singapore International Piano Festival
Joseph Moog at the 2017 Singapore International Piano Festival
© Singapore International Piano Festival

Since 1994 – when Kathryn Stott, Jean-Philippe Collard, Martin Roscoe and Xiang-Dong Kong presented “Four Fantasy Evenings” – the Singapore International Piano Festival has attracted some of the world’s greatest classical pianists. 2018 sees the festival celebrate its silver jubilee, planned by Lionel Choi, marking his final season as Artistic Director. It’s what Choi calls a “supersized” edition with five solo recitals, masterclasses and not one, but two appearances by Martha Argerich.  

Choi first approached Seong-Jin Cho to play at the festival in 2012, fresh from his 2009 win in the Hamamatsu Competition and his bronze medal in the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition. Now, in the wake of the Korean pianist’s triumph in the 2015 Chopin Competition which has catapulted him to stardom, Choi has finally got his man. Unsurprisingly, Chopin features in Cho’s programme which opens the 25th festival. The Third Sonata, less often performed than the ‘Funeral March’ Second, is the essence of the Romantic piano sonata, from its Ballade-like outer movements to its wispy scherzo and a Largo as tender as Chopin’s many nocturnes. Cho adds Debussy to his programme – appropriately for the centenary of the French composer’s death – as well as Schumann’s early Fantasiestücke Op.12 and Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata. Cho has been reviewed on our pages as an “exceptional” pianist, with “an enviable ability to make every note sound distinct and clear, shaping and balancing each phrase perfectly.”

Stephen Hough at the 2012 Singapore International Piano Festival © Singapore International Piano Festival
Stephen Hough at the 2012 Singapore International Piano Festival
© Singapore International Piano Festival

Dang Thai Son was another Chopin Competition winner, although from much earlier. The Vietnamese pianist won in 1980 and has established a reputation as one of the best Chopin interpreters, especially his forays into period instrument performances for the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw. There are only two Chopin works on Dang Thai Son’s Singapore programme – the Op.60 Barcarolle and the mighty Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante – but he then turns to Chopin’s compatriot, another pianist-composer, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who briefly became Poland’s Prime Minister in the aftermath of the First World War. Paderewski was a leading Chopin interpreter but his own music is rarely performed today, so the chance to hear one of today’s leading Chopin interpreters turn his hand to the later Pole should be fascinating.

Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon naturally includes plenty of Bartók in his wide-ranging Singapore recital, the Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs giving it an earthy core. Ravel’s suite Gaspard de la nuit is Vàrjon’s centrepiece, its three movements evoking utterly different atmospheres. From the rippling Ondine attempting to seduce passers-by to her lake’s watery depths, to the desert landscape of Le Gibet, then to the wicked goblin Scarbo scratching at the bed curtains, Ravel really tests the pianist’s technique. Jeremy Denk is known for his questing, intelligent programmes and his silver jubilee recital mixes Mozart and Beethoven with Schumann and Prokofiev. Denk is also one of the pianists giving a masterclass during the festival, an excellent opportunity for young students.

Martha Argerich © Adriano Heitman
Martha Argerich
© Adriano Heitman

The star-turn of the festival is undoubtedly Martha Argerich… another Chopin Competition winner (1965). She never plays solo recitals any more, preferring musical collaborations either in duo recitals or concertos – lucky Singapore gets both. First, she teams up with fellow Argentinian Darío Alejandro Ntaca for a programme of two-piano treats, culminating in Rachmaninov’s terrific Suite no. 2, an Argerich favourite. Ntaca is her collaborator in concert too, where he performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major before conducting the Singapore Symphony while Argerich plays Prokofiev’s Third. This is one of the concertos Argerich plays most frequently; when she performed it with the St Petersburg Philharmonic in London last year, we praised her pianism as “crisp, balanced with inner steel though she never resorted to hammering Prokofiev's percussive lines”. She is sure to delight Singapore audiences, and the glittering fireworks of Prokofiev’s swirling piano writing should prove a wonderful way to crown the festival.


This preview was sponsored by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra