Compared with the piano concertos of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev or Shostakovich, those of Igor Stravinsky are hardly performed in Singapore. This evening provided a rare opportunity for the Russian’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments and Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra to be heard. Doing the honours was Russian pianist Alexei Volodin, past winner of the Geza Anda International Piano Competition, who will also record both concertos with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Hans Graf’s direction. 

Alexei Volodin
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Chrisppics+

Both works are neoclassical in form, but diverge completely in style and demeanour. The Piano Concerto, scored with wind instruments and double basses, resembles Baroque concerti grossi from the era of Bach. A mock-serious march-like opening, sounding as dry as dust, ushered in toccata-like figurations from the piano. That was where the fun started. Volodin, playing from a score turned by his wife, was hard pressed to keep up with the woodwinds and brass with regards to volume and pacing. Its general exuberance eventually found a match with the soloist maintaining an athletic, utterly steadfast and somewhat unyielding mien throughout. 

Whether this was deliberate or a necessity given the circumstances, was hard to say, but the ensemble finally got to luxuriate a little in the aria-like central movement. Its rare moments of lyricism would soon give way to the finale’s irrepressible syncopations. Now one can safely vouch that the earlier seriousness was merely a ploy, and humour would ultimately be revealed. The orchestra had not played this concerto since 1991 (with Marios Papadopoulos as soloist), and this outing came across as under-rehearsed. A few more tweaks and a credible recording should result. 

Quite different was the Capriccio, receiving its local premiere, which is closer in spirit to Stravinsky’s ballets from the same period including Apollon musagète or The Fairy’s Kiss. The buffer of a full orchestra also gave it a more luxuriant feel, despite having lighter and more transparent textures. Volodin more than coped with the tricky piano writing, jazzily rhythmic, bringing out playful and whimsical aspects of the music. Judging from the vibrant reading, there is little reason why this piano concerto in all but name should not be as popular as those of Ravel or Poulenc. 

Hans Graf conducts the Singapore Symphony Orchestra
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra | Chrisppics+

It seemed almost incredulous that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra had never previously performed Mozart’s Symphonies nos. 28 and 30 before, given the many airings of the A major symphony (K201) in between. Trust the Salzburg-native in Hans Graf to put that right, and he went even as far to suggest a performance of that trilogy some day. Now that is a great idea. 

The Symphony no. 30 in D major opened the concert, its four short movements resembling Mozart’s divertimenti, works conceived for general entertainment. Lightness and litheness were key, making little demands on listeners. Grace and refinement in both the slow and fast movements were to be outdone by the finale’s mercurial act, which had a surprisingly understated close, a taste of Mozartian humour. 

In a similar vein, the Symphony no. 28 in C major completed the evening with more mirth. Who opens a symphony with a Minuet? And in the actual Minuet movement itself, Mozart has the French horn echo in imitation of the strings. The accuracy of execution in the Presto finale also had one imagining the SSO as a genuine Mozart orchestra. That is a great idea too.