We’ve already reached the penultimate week at the BBC Proms and Air Miles are clocking up apace with orchestras visiting from far afield. This evening saw the Singapore Symphony make its Proms debut, bringing in its hand luggage a European première of a work by Chinese composer Zhou Long. A relative youngster at just 35 years old, the orchestra boasts in Lan Shui one of the world’s longest-serving music directors.

Lan Shui conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Lan Shui conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

First night nerves were dispelled with a breathless account of Glinka’s ebullient overture to his opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, running the risk of turning into a mini-concerto for timpani, so vigorous and brusque was the playing.

In Zhou Long’s own programme notes to his piano concerto Postures, he explains that the approach he took was to treat the piano as “a quite delicate percussion instrument”, which jars a little with his opening statement “I always consider the piano a rhythmic and hammered instrument”. Animal masks and kung fu gestures from martial arts films are cited as influences alongside a photo of the Peking Opera. The score bursts with colour and interesting textures, most notably in the second movement “Pianobells”, where soloist Andreas Haefliger has to lean inside the instrument and glide his hand across the strings, striking low strings, to create waves of muffled sound like distant cathedral bells. More than once, Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie came to mind as Long balanced these chimes with ear-tickling tintinnabulations high on the piano’s keyboard.

Outer movements were fast, full of complex rhythmic patterns, the orchestra providing plenty of local colour, although several of the effects skirted with cliché. The shaman inspired “Pianodance” features a fanfare-type motif which wouldn’t be out of place in Turandot’s Peking, while the crash, bang, wallop finale evoked the soundtrack of a Tom and Jerry escapade. As the composer confesses, this is a different sort of piano concerto and I wonder what the main attractions are for the soloist in performing it. The work requires virtuosity aplenty, but the soloist doesn’t attract much of the limelight, too often hammering away intricate patterns against heavy orchestration. Zhou Long repeats much of his material – a pair of editorial scissors taken to the score would present his ideas more cogently. Haefliger poured balm on the ‘sound and fury’ of Postures with Berio’s rippling Wasserklavier as an encore.

Andreas Haefliger © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Andreas Haefliger
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Whilst bringing the exotic sounds of the Far East in Postures, the Singapore Symphony could almost be considered on home territory in Rachmaninov too, having made several recordings which have secured its reputation as an orchestra to be reckoned with. After a slightly queasy – rather than brooding – opening, the performance of the Second Symphony sprang into life with the Allegro moderato. The Singapore string sound is lean and clean, which made for an unusually fat-free, purposeful account, accentuated by Shui’s fondness for vim and vigour. This worked especially well in the pacing of Rachmaninov’s fitful final movement where he managed transitions excellently. Flanking the orchestra, double basses and lower brass provided sturdy foundations.

Inner movements were underwhelming. I longed for the odd touch of string portamento or a grain of coarseness from the brass, but the playing was all clean efficiency. The Adagio’s great clarinet solo sounded a little penny-plain, but Shui’s approach emphasised flow over tonal beauty.

It was the encore which found the orchestra in its most persuasive form. Walton’s March for a projected film on Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples uses the same recipe (and similar ingredients) as Crown Imperial. The Singapore players arched their backs and played it to the manner born. Talk about taking coals to Newcastle!