Vladimir Ashkenazy is a name one would rely on to sell tickets in Singapore. His fourth appearance to conduct the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was a sellout, with Esplanade Concert Hall’s gallery seats filled to the brim after all the circles had been fully occupied. As before, the programme was of standard repertoire, but one could be guaranteed of consistency, with solid performances and neither big surprises nor disappointments.

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Vladimir Ashkenazy
© Keith Saunders

It was a concert of two halves, late Schumann in the first, followed by Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony in the second. Robert Schumann’s Manfred Overture (1848) and Cello Concerto (1850) may be said to be cut from the same musical fabric. Three fast chords open the former – more a symphonic poem than actual overture – in its slow introduction. It took some time for the orchestra to fully warm up before launching headlong into the fast section, consumed in the full flush of Romanticism. The Byronic anti-hero’s struggle with some unspoken guilt was laid bare and passionately realised.

Three slowly-placed gentle chords open the concerto, and French cellist Gautier Capuçon’s lovely singing tone soon took over. In this autumnal work (the last published piece before Schumann’s descent into insanity), sheer outward display gave way to more musical values. Even the accompanying orchestral part was lighter in texture. Despite eschewing obvious virtuosity, Capuçon’s suppleness and subtlety ensured that he encompassed a wide range of emotions in the faster opening movement before the slow movement’s moving plaint.

Here SSO cello principal Ng Pei Sian served as a supportive second voice, closely allied to the music-making like an accompanying shadow. The first movement theme was reminisced before leading directly into the energetic finale. The striking three-note motif, modification of the concerto’s opening chords, was to resound insistently and repetitively. Like a last tenuous grasp on memory and humanity, the end to Schumann’s journey was to find an empathetic and emphatic response from Capuçon, culminating with a cadenza unusually accompanied by pizzicato strings and winds.

Warm applause greeted the rousing close, which was followed by two solo encores. Prokofiev’s March from Music For Children and an unaccompanied Fauré Après un reve revealing more of Capucon’s gorgeous cello voice.

Ashkenazy also performed Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony on his 2011 visit to Singapore. There were to be no seismic shifts in his interpretation. The quartet of French horns was generally excellent in the first movement’s Fate motif and would remain so throughout the work whenever it recurred. Solos from clarinettist Ma Yue and bassoonist Wang Xiaoke were also spot on. The octogenarian Ashkenazy’s view of this symphony was to let the music flow unabated, without driving the movement’s development relentlessly into a strait-jacket. But when the congested climaxes arrived, they did so with a greater sense of vehemence.

The slow movement’s solo oboe plaint was lovingly voiced by Rachel Walker, and the Russianness of the symphony became all the more apparent. The pace sagged a little, but not fatally so, and soon it was the massed pizzicato strings that lit up the Scherzo. Sprightliness in spirit was key, and Ashkenazy’s earlier steps to the podium had infected the strings, with woodwinds and brass soon to follow. The finale, with its quote of the Russian folksong The Little Birch, was conducted at breakneck and high adrenalin pace, and that is how this most excitable and volatile of Tchaikovsky symphonies ought to end. Loud cheers and multiple curtain calls meant that its message was received loud and clear.