Conducted by music director Hans Graf, this Singapore Symphony Orchestra programme was united by three early Romantic composers, with works composed around the time of Beethoven’s death in 1827. Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826), Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828) all died young themselves, and one wondered what might have been if each of them had lived for several decades more. 

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Hans Graf, Seika Ishida and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Jack Yam

Weber’s Oberon Overture began the concert, a perfect opportunity to showcase the orchestra’s new principal horn Austin Larson, who handled the very exposed opening solo with much aplomb. After the slow introduction, the music then eloped into its world of fairies and elves, the lightness (also referenced in the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) well captured by the orchestra. If the piece sounded familiar to some listeners in Singapore, that may have been because of a washing detergent advertisement on television that was suitably soapy and sudsy. 

Had Weber lived several years beyond the London premiere of Oberon (machinations of which precipitated his premature demise), he might have heard Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor, an early work (preceding the better-known Piano Concerto no. 1) that owed a debt of influence to Mozart. Young Japanese pianist Seika Ishida was heard last November in the Sturm und Drang of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor and her Chopin was very similar, with clarity and restraint being hallmarks. Some degree of rubato was exercised, which distinguished Chopin from Mozart. When the chance came in the first movement development to catch fire, she remained steadfast and unflappable. One might have wished for a higher quotient of passion. 

That was duly delivered in the Larghetto, where contrasts between its nocturne-like opening and the highly-strung central episode became more palpable. The concluding Rondo was more tasteful than exciting, and despite col legno (the wood of bows striking the strings) urgings from violins and violas, strict composure was maintained. The French horn’s wake-up call did the trick, with a rhythmic thrust propelling both soloist and orchestra through to the furious final furlong. Ishida’s lyrical encore showed where her heart truly belongs, a quasi-improvisation joined at the hip to Edvard Grieg’s first and last Lyric Pieces, Arietta (Op.12 no.1) and Remembrances (Op.71 no.7). Totally charming. 

As with the SSO’s last concert (of Mozart and Richard Strauss), the highlight was the final work, a gripping performance of Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major, also known as the “The Great”. Composed in his last year, but not premiered until 1839 under the baton of no less than Felix Mendelssohn, Schubert’s four movements lived up to that favourite description, being of “heavenly length”. Yet under Graf’s tautly strung reading, its 51 minutes sounded neither hectic nor harried. It was Larson’s French horn again that confidently set the stage for the music’s ebb and flow. Even the opening movement sounded breezy and short-winded, while the second movement’s brisk march built up to a climax, with an aftermath that paid ever more dividends. 

The ensuing Scherzo was suitably rambunctious, and did anyone think that its Trio sounded like For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow? What was never in doubt, was the valedictory finale’s quote of the Ode To Joy from Beethoven’s own Ninth Symphony (composed several years before Schubert’s), which never sounded more blatant. Now here is a thought: had he not died at the tender age of 31, Franz Schubert’s future symphonies might suggest that he, rather than Gustav Mahler, would have become the Austrian symphonist most closely associated with Anton Bruckner.