Massaging the tempo

RBSO No.2 Photo courtesy of Bangkok Symphony Orchestra Foundation

The pursuit of Mozartian clarity of tone and intonation are most certainly among the chief objectives of any cello soloist as they take to the platform with an orchestra to perform Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s perfectly conceived Variations On A Rococo Theme Op.33. The Romantic-era composer modelled this audience favourite on the example of his Classical-era idol, although the delightful A-major theme itself is the composer’s own, not borrowed. What is not quite so Mozartian is the high percentage of time the soloist is required to play in high registers at the upper end of the fingerboard, in a demanding thumb-position, not to mention the fiendishly difficult string-crossing passage-work that must be negotiated just as constant streams of scurrying semiquavers demisemiquavers give the soloist a thoroughly good workout, with precious few bars in which he may rest before the next virtuoso entry.

At the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra’s sold-out Classical Concert No.2 last Friday, at the Small Hall of the Thailand Cultural Centre, already well-established local musician Apichai Leamthong enhanced his reputation with a commendable performance of this masterpiece, producing both a musically convincing and technically competent rendition. He played the usual revised version by Tchaikovsky’s original dedicatee Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, with a well-balanced RBSO accompanying very sensitively under the direction of jovial Japanese conductor Hide Shindori. The inner parts of this score in particular require a neatness of articulation and transparency of texture so as not to cover up the solo line, so that pianos are often better read as pianissimos, for example. This was achieved, as was a sense of ongoing momentum and connection between the theme and the seven distinct variations, which otherwise might be in danger of presenting themselves as separate, isolated units, rather than functioning as linked sections of the larger, unified whole.

It is primarily the conductor’s role to effect this cohesion successfully by steering skilfully through the successive phrase structures with well-judged tempo relationships, as the mood of one variation or atmospheric passage transitions smoothly to the next contrasting one. Shindori achieved this admirably, although the overall tempo of the performance was a little slower than many audiences may be accustomed to — Leamthong made sure to give himself ample time to negotiate the numerous hurdles that Tchaikovsky-Fitzenhagen present with ease and confidence.

He also made the wise decision to introduce himself to the audience by performing the same composer’s much shorter Andante Cantabile Op.11 before the main event and pyrotechnics, thereby giving himself an opportunity to settle down and get fully comfortable. This exquisite and moving music (originally the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet, but later arranged in 1888 for cello and orchestra) is usually programmed as an encore, but nonetheless poses its own demands in terms of the extreme hushed dynamics and fine bowing control needed to play long, uninterrupted melodic lines expressively. Enthusiastic applause from the full house brought back Apichai many times, until he obliged with an extra solo piece.

In a clever touch of programming in this most poignant of years for Bangkok concertgoers and performers alike, he presented as an encore a modern arrangement of King Bhumibol’s song Lovelight In My Heart, leaving the auditorium with a warm glow as the concert reached its intermission.

Shindori had opened the concert with a tastefully etched reading of Sir Edward Elgar’s beloved salon piece Salut D’Amour as arranged for strings, woodwind and French horns. Composed in the very same year as the Andante cantabile, which was to follow in the programme, it is not entirely dissimilar music, also indulging unabashedly in heart-on-sleeve emotional outpourings of vibrato-laden bel canto style. In this work, however, it is the first violin section which holds the tune, for the most part, with its numerous tutti portamentos and rich-toned G-string playing here given careful, loving attention and treatment by the RBSO ranks.

Following the intermission was a quite breathtaking performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, immediately reminding anyone who had seen Shindori on his last visit of his energised, exuberant stage persona. Beethoven’s very opening metronome marking of crotchet-equalling 69 beats per minute is designed to build up an irresistible tension before the sublime release of that famous dotted motor-rhythm which dominates the Vivace.

More than one other eminent composer noticed that wild dancing might well be imagined when listening to the outer movements, and in this respect the orchestra and conductor were certainly a happy match for each other. The audience was clearly overjoyed by the experience, Shindori having truly won them over once again — as indeed he had also done with the RBSO itself.