This is the second of three consecutive Singapore Symphony Orchestra concert programmes to feature the music of Mozart. Although much beloved, Amadeus does not appear too often in SSO concerts, largely because of venue constraints. Concerts in Esplanade Concert Hall necessitate big works – Bruckner, Mahler, Richard Strauss and their like – but thanks to the availability of the much smaller Victoria Concert Hall (seating 673), more Mozart, Haydn and chamber-sized repertoire is being heard. 

Mario Venzago, Akiko Suwanai and the Singapore Symphony
© Singapore Symphony

Led by Swiss conductor Mario Venzago, the evening began with Mendelssohn’s concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, inspired by two of Goethe’s poems. The chorale-like slow opening with strings and woodwinds was sensitively handled, leading to the faster main section, a depiction of the seafaring vessel picking up wind and moving forth. Invigorating in no small part was a rousing fanfare from a trio of trumpets. The music also struck a familiar chord as its recurring theme was quoted by Elgar in the penultimate variation of his Enigma Variations, just heard a few weeks ago. 

Japanese violinist Akiko Suwanai achieved worldwide acclaim after winning 1st prize at the 1990 Tchaikovsky International Violin Competition as a teenager. It would seem small beer for her to perform a Mozart violin concerto rather than one of those Romantic warhorses which helped make her name. But make no mistake, her reading of the Third Violin Concerto in G major (K216) was as perfect a conception as one hoped possible. 

Even the voluminous but sweet tone she exuded did not seem out of place in the rococo masterpiece. Every passage and phrase sounded freshly minted and pristine in clarity. The energetic first movement was more con spirito than con brio, and the somewhat romanticised cadenza (surely more virtuosic for its time) did not jar. The slow movement was an epitome of grace, and one wished it not to end. The finale’s Rondeau was a return to earlier high spirits, with a central serenade-like interlude to provide a diversion and contrast. The vigorous applause accorded her yielded just one encore, the Gigue from Bach’s Unaccompanied Third Partita in E major. 

Brahms' Second Symphony seemed like a continuation of the pastoral theme established in last week’s concert offering of Enescu and Beethoven. Conductor Venzago’s vision of Brahms’ “Pastoral” was one that smiled from ear to ear. Tempos were swift but not hectic, accomplished with an absence of bombast and portentousness. The first movement’s second subject, reminiscent of his Wiegenlied (Cradle Song), came like a nostalgic memory and good sense prevailed not for it to be milked to the max. 

With the doom and gloom lifted, the slow movement instead radiated warmth and rose to a glorious climax. Credit goes to Associate Principal French horn Marc-Antoine Robillard’s command in this demanding role. Woodwinds were also excellent in the Allegretto grazioso third movement, accompanied by cello pizzicatos, followed by chattering strings. Is there a more joyous Brahmsian symphonic movement than the finale of the Second? On this account, the answer would be in the negative, as Venzago led his charges through unfettered emotions to a blazing conclusion. This was Brahms without tears.