Concert life has returned to normality in Singapore, with audiences packed in for a full-strength Singapore Symphony Orchestra performing full-length concerts and partnering big-name soloists. Violinist Ray Chen and pianist Khatia Buniatishvili were recently greeted by cheering fans, and it was now the turn of British pianist Stephen Hough and Italian conductor Fabio Biondi

Stephen Hough, Fabio Biondi and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Jack Yam

On hearing the first two chords of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville Overture, one knew this was going to be something different. Loud but light, with not a single ounce of fat, was what informed the approach to the warhorse. That Biondi, well known for period instrument movement performances, was leading a symphony orchestra of modern instruments made this interesting. Could the music sound lithe yet carry sufficient weight to pack a punch? It did so without apology and the Rossinian crescendos, built up over several waves, were simply thrilling. 

Mozart’s very popular Piano Concerto no. 21 in C major was not going to be common garden variety either. Despite the march-like rhythm established in the first movement’s orchestral ritornello, this reading would not be metronomic. Even before the piano’s entry, there was a marked ritardando, ushering in Hough’s short cadenza-like flourish before the solo proper. There were to be more of these 18th-century iterations of rubato (“stealing” of time for dramatic effect), notably in the finale. 

To say Hough’s account was always polished and perpetually lively would belabour the point, so attention is paid to his witty and highly idiomatic cadenzas. The first movement’s improvisation relived earlier themes and motifs, later piquing the ears by shifting into the minor mode. The finale’s cadenza was no less involving, befitting the creative spirit that is Hough, who is also totally accomplished as a composer and writer. If there were a slight reservation, the ubiquitous Andante came across more like an Allegretto. Was this was a conscious reaction against the sentimentality associated with this music? Almost everybody knows the name Elvira Madigan, but has anybody actually watched the tragic 1967 Swedish movie that's so associated with this music? 

Everybody looks forward to Hough’s encores, and he offered two this evening. The first, a short trifle in A major by Bohemian composer Jan Vaclav Kalivoda could easily accompany a spot of yodelling, while the second, by another Bohemian, was far more familiar. But when was the last time anybody actually heard Antonin Dvorak’s Humoresque in G flat major in its original version for solo piano in a concert hall? 

Fabio Biondi and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Jack Yam

Hough’s first encore was deliberate, a prelude to the Symphony no. 1 in F minor by the same composer, better known by his Germanised name Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda (1801-1866). Even the “better known” is qualified as the Prague-born composer is hardly known outside of his native country, and certainly not in Singapore. A contemporary of Schubert and fellow subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he has been described as the symphonic link between Beethoven and Schumann. In four movements and playing for half an hour, this work by the 23-year-old Bohemian deserves to be heard. 

The ambiguous tonality at the first movement’s slow introduction certainly caught the ear, before definitively settling on F minor for the Allegro section. As a Sturm und Drang symphony, idiomatically it most resembles Mendelssohn’s First Symphony, also composed in 1824. The orchestra weathered it storms with conviction, then settling into the slow movement’s stately hymn-like opening. Arguably the symphony’s best movement, its contrasts between slow and fast showed the true range of Kalliwoda’s skills. The third movement’s Menuetto and Trio was more like a Scherzo and Trio, more serious than dainty in intent, before blazing into a furiously raging finale. That there was enough time to include an obligatory fugato was a nod to tradition. A very fine and engaging performance like this will win this almost forgotten composer many new friends.