In a concert season that happened to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Sir Stamford Raffles landing in Singapore and establishing the far-flung fishing village as a crown colony, there could not have been a more English programme than this. An all-Elgar affair by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra directed by its Principal Guest Conductor Andrew Litton was not so much a distant memory of colonialism but rather an exercise in nostalgia.

Rachel Barton Pine, Andrew Litton and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

It was not too long ago when the British ran a naval base on the northern coast of Singapore, and when Ronald Binge’s Elizabethan Serenade, Purcell’s Rondeau from Abdelazer and Elgar’s Salut d’Amour were regular fixtures heard on television. Yes, that same Edward Elgar whose Violin Concerto was performed by American violinist Rachel Barton Pine, as a relative rarity in the SSO’s concert calendar. It should be noted that previous performers of this monument, for want of a better description, included Nigel Kennedy and Tasmin Little, both Britons.

Running at about 50 minutes, it is (with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major) the longest violin concerto in the standard concert repertoire. Keeping it in shape and form was no easy task, but Barton Pine was well within her comfort zone. Playing seated and with the help of a score, she took regular liberties with tempi and dynamics. Stretching certain phrases and contracting others, it was a way of putting a personal mark on the music. Good taste was never compromised, and her tone was robust and expansive from point of entry.

The orchestra had a clear grasp on Elgar’s nobilmente and all that it entailed, from the long introductory tutti to the work’s nether reaches. A flexibility in flexing its muscles meant that even the softest of Pine’s solo passages was being heard. The “Windflower” second theme representing Elgar’s secret love (not his wife!) was brought out tenderly, and would be a recurrent Leitmotif of sorts.

Andrew Litton conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

The slow movement – the heart of the concerto – got the heartrending treatment it deserved, while the mercurial finale breezed through almost effortlessly. The cadenza, accompanied by quivering strings, had a breathtaking quality. Even if there was a minor lapse involving an awkward page-turn, that was not going to derail this memorable and enjoyable reading. More of Barton Pine’s big violin tone was on display in her encore, Maud Powell’s edition of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s improvisation on the Afro-American spiritual Deep River.

After the intermission, Elgar’s warhorse Enigma Variations was trotted in. The Enigma theme (still a mystery after all these years) was taken at a solemn pace, as if to its showcase an underlying pathos. The ensuing variations however, all named after Elgar’s friends and loved ones, a contemporary portrait of Malvern society, picked up in pace, alternating slower variations with faster ones. The build-up was arch-like, culminating in the pivotal 9th variation, the mighty Nimrod. Litton’s grasp of the architecture and direction of thrust was close to faultless, and the Brahmsian conception to its development (one thinks of the German’s Haydn Variations) becomes ever more apparent. It is tempting to overdo Nimrod’s nobility by excessively posturing but this was mostly avoided. That was reserved, however, for the final variation E.D.U. (Edu, Elgar’s own musical portrait) where the pomp and bombast were laid on with a shovel, no doubt helped by big organ chords.

The exhilarating feeling of Pax Brittanica did not end there, as Litton announced, “We feel you need to hear more Elgar!” Cue the Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1,in its Land of Hope and Glory version, milked for all its worth. Celebrate like it’s the Last Night of The Proms, or perhaps 1959 (the last year Singapore had a British governor). The only things missing were the Union Jacks.