Singapore has gone into Covid pandemic lockdown again, no thanks to an increasing number of newly diagnosed cases within the community. The pair of contrasted Mozart programmes by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Gábor Káli and pianist Dénes Várjon, both Hungarians, were fortunately completed just before the suspension of orchestral concerts.

Gábor Káli
© Jack Yam

The first concert (7th May) covered only works in minor key, while the second programme (14th and 15th May) was devoted to major key compositions. While the rarity of minor key works (just two each of 41 symphonies and 27 piano concertos) make for more interesting Mozart, many of his major key works are hardly ever heard in concert. Such was his Cassation in G major, which received its first performance in Singapore. 

This seven-part work could easily be called a Serenade or Divertimento, its short movements being slight, light-hearted, easy on the ears while not being particularly memorable. The entertainment of the Prince-Archbishop’s Salzburg court was probably uppermost in the 13-year-old Mozart’s mind, who trotted out a series of march-like sequences and foursquare dances. Standing out, however, was the fifth movement, an Andante in G minor where a hint of pathos and spark of inspiration may be discerned. The finale also contains surprises, with several false endings revealing tongue firmly lodged in cheek. Under Káli’s direction, strings boosted by two French horns and two oboes made the music sound better than it was. 

Far better known is the Piano Concerto no.12 in A major, which received a sparkling reading from Dénes Várjon. Crisp articulation and limpid textures characterised his approach, allowing the music to freely breathe and “flow like oil”, to borrow a favourite description of Mozart’s. The orchestral partnership was sensitive throughout and at no point threatened to overshadow the soloist. Cadenzas were by Mozart, well-proportioned and totally in sync with all that had come before. 

Gábor Káli, Dénes Várjon and the Singapore Symphony
© Jack Yam

Interestingly, the central slow movement reprised a theme from the first movement, now sounding elegant and reverential, in marked contrast with the earlier liveliness. Good humour reigned in the finale’s Rondo, which brought a smile whenever the second subject was raised. This curiously resembles a Chinese ditty sung by young pre-school children here in Singapore (a total coincidence, no doubt). Várjon’s well-chosen encore, Bártok’s Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csik, was illuminated with the same clarity and incisive vividness. 

A rare outing for the Symphony no. 34 in C major closed the evening. For every performance of the great C major symphony (no. 41, or Jupiter), there should be at least one of this little masterpiece. Its weaknesses, however, lay in just having three movements and only lasting about 20 minutes, but Káli and his charges roared into it as if a matter of life and death. The martial-sounding first movement, aided by two trumpets and timpani, had the outsized pomp to mark the most momentous of occasions. Mellow strings, led by concertmaster Kong Zhao Hui, provided the symphony’s salve in its central slow movement but the high spirits returned for the finale’s Allegro vivace, now with the focus of attention on Rachel Walker and Carolyn Hollier’s pair of chattering oboes. This was the kind of performance which made one ponder, “Why don’t we hear this enough?”