The current Covid pandemic, soon to be to reclassified as an endemic, has seen the Singapore Symphony Orchestra performing more Mozart than in any other period of its 42-year history. Size matters, which was why Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mahler have been silenced, given stringent social-distancing and stage restrictions. But what a boon it has been for those hankering for lesser-known classics by Salzburg’s greatest son.

Cédric Tiberghien and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Jack Yam

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 13, K415, is the least performed of his three piano concertos in C major. This should come as a surprise given its celebratory tone, boosted by two trumpets and a busy timpanist, and a scintillating piano part. This was among the handful of concertos Mozart composed in the early 1780s for public consumption, while establishing himself as a freelance keyboard virtuoso after being unceremoniously booted out from the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg’s employ. French pianist Cédric Tiberghien, informally attired in shirt-sleeves and tie rather than formal concert attire, rose to its myriad challenges. 

His conception stood out as being clear-headed and tasteful, balancing between limpid fingerwork and standing out without leaving the reduced orchestral forces in his wake. Eschewing outward display for its own sake, this was a breezy performance that fully realised the music’s inherent lyricism. There were cadenzas in all three movements, opportunities for ample flashes of Mozartian virtuosity and quasi-improvisatory flair. The cheery Rondo finale’s alternating between major and minor keys was refreshing. Its cadenza culminated with a sly quotation of the opening theme from Mozart’s next C major piano concerto (K467), cheekily inserted by Tiberghien to pique the ears, an unexpected delight. 

That the concerto ended quietly and without pomp gave a clue to its relative neglect. This also prompted an encore from Tiberghien: Oiseaux tristes from Ravel’s Miroirs, replete with bird calls, echoes and pregnant silences. An unexpected choice? Not so, given the balance of the evening’s programme.

Carlos Kalmar conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Jack Yam

Not regularly aired is Mozart’s Symphony no. 31 in D major, also known as his “Paris” Symphony, which received a rousing performance under the baton of Carlos Kalmar, Uruguay-born conductor of Austrian parentage. Keeping similar forces as the concerto but with added flutes and clarinets, the celebratory element was retained while the volume quotient significantly upped. Written for his ill-fated 1778 tour to Paris, this rather short-winded symphony was calculated to please audiences. 

And please it did this evening, with a reading of vim and vigour. The unapologetic, jubilant mood of its first movement was established from the outset and never flagged for a moment. Some respite was afforded in the central slow movement, where strings shone for their restraint and grace. The customary Minuet and Trio movement was dropped, in its place a bristling Allegro finale, coming across more like a Presto with chattering strings in busy counterpoint. Hints of Mozart’s future greatness, as celebrated in his “Jupiter” Symphony, may be found here. 

The concert opened with Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, four movements from the piano suite of the same title which he had later orchestrated. Despite having dedicated these to friends who died in the Western front, the Neo-baroque homage to all things French was anything but sombre. The Prélude flowed unabated, carried forward by excellent woodwinds, while the ensuing antique dance movements – a Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon – exuded freshness and charm. One might be excused for imagining this to be a concertante work, for principal oboist Rachel Walker’s pristine articulation and innate musicality made her the star of this glittering showcase.