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by Derek Lim

 
 

 

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Concertos No.2 and No.3

2 October 2005

a t the Victoria Concert Hall


with

Tedd Joselson
, piano

New Festival Orchestra

Adrian Tan
, conductor

WATCHING A Tedd Joselson concert is like trying your hand at Russian roulette - you just don’t know what you’re going to get. I remember vividly an evening at the selfsame Victoria Concert Hall where Joselson played a recital which included a wonderfully played Chopin Second Sonata, marred by an a strange announcement dedicating each movement to a local luminary in the Singapore piano scene (in particular, the funeral march was dedicated to Victor Khor) and a curious selection of works for the encore – a talented young student of his, Benjamin Boo, playing the Chopin A major prelude and a specially hired singer to sing “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie Titanic (long after the soundtrack started appearing in used-CD bins), which Joselson accompanied with much joy with rippling arpeggios to. Taste and Joselson, it seems, are not always well acquainted, whether we choose or not to believe Leonard Bernstein’s alleged comments about him: “he is who he is… … one of the great”.

So it was with some morbid trepidation that I went for Joselson’s concert for his thirtieth anniversary. Rach 2 and 3 featured – how could one go wrong? Read on.

The “New Festival Orchestra” and local amateur conductor Adrian Tan would be Joselson’s accompanists. Specially put together for this performance, the orchestra consisted of a mix of professional musicians and enthusiastic amateurs.
 
And so we started with the second concerto. Though less popular than the third, the second is more demanding interpretatively. Performances of this work range from the muscular (Richter and Kapell come to mind) to the laid-back (Curzon) to the digitally adept but emotionally sterile Stephen Hough. The chords of the first movement (signifying the tolling of bells which play such an important part in Rachmaninoff’s oevre) and the river of notes that comes after usually give a clue as to the subsequent treatment of the work.

Joselson’s (pictured right) opening chords were commandingly played, albeit spoilt by histrionics (though nothing like recent “sensation” Lang Lang, I must admit). These were played a tempo and quite speedily (the marking is Moderato), while not feeling rushed, but as he reached the torrent of notes that would welcome the orchestra playing the principal theme, it was obvious that it was going to be a concerto against the orchestra rather than with it. This proved to be more the rule than the exception throughout the concert, with the soloist consistently trying to exert his authority over the orchestra, and more often than not succeeding. This created a lot of excitement, albeit in the most unexpected parts.


Despite this one-upmanship, there was much to enjoy. First of all, Joselson clearly knew his way around the music, creating moments of extraordinary beauty in phrase and colour. He has that X-factor, what we usually call the feel for the music that can’t be taught, despite playing that frequently approached vulgarity. Unfortunately, all these made his performance all the more frustrating, since his technique clearly wasn’t what it was when he played that recital several years ago. Fistfuls of flubs informed the more difficult passages and even the lyrical ones were not spared – just as I was beginning to relax and enjoy his playing, some errant note would come by and spoil it all. Joselson is capable of a large tone without cracking the notes, but in parts the Steinway seemed to get the better of him and it became percussive and unpleasant.

The orchestra followed Joselson’s playing as best they could, but his freewheeling sense of tempo that changed from bar to bar made it difficult. This was unaided by the conductor, who while clearly trying his best, was unable to get the orchestra to follow him – a primary failing. At times it seemed like one was watching a movie with the soundtrack not quite in sync, such that the conducting had little to do with the music produced.

At the passage leading up to the climax of the first movement, for example, the tension emanated more from wondering whether there would be a “train-wreck” rather than from the music per se. Even the tutti passage was equally messy and uncoordinated. On the plus side, he eschewed the big Hollywood sound that spoilt Moiseiwitsch’s recording of the second concerto and wasn’t totally subservient to Joselson’s conception of the work, to the obliteration of his. Perhaps with a better rehearsed orchestra he might have been able to achieve his vision of the work more satisfactorily - after all, professional orchestras regularly cover-up for the shortcomings of their conductors, but as it were, it dangerously approached the level of a travesty.

Another obvious example was in the finale, where the soloist decided to strike out on his own, making a mess of many passages, but the fugato passage, Rachmaninoff tipping his hat off to Brahms and Beethoven before him, shall live in my memory forever for its unmitigated chaos.  When the final chord rang it was with much relief that I exited the hall.

We returned after the interval for the third concerto. This time Joselson improved tremendously, but the orchestra was if anything, even worse. My colleague commented that his playing was an exact carbon copy of Horowitz, sans the technique required at the most demanding passages and that hyper-erotic romanticism with which he played. I’d tend to agree. Not that it was a bad thing – it takes a lot to even attempt to play like Horowitz.

The solo part was played as authoritatively as in the second concert, with thankfully many fewer mistakes than before. Here we were able to appreciate again his fine sense of touch and tone. His playing was as daring as one might hope for and for the most part this paid off, except in the most demanding passages where his technique simply failed him, most notably in the cadenza (he opted for the shorter one). On the whole, though, it was good to hear a pianist take risks in his playing.

Perhaps the length of the work got to him, but the flub-ridden playing of the second concerto quickly returned in the slow movement, featuring plenty of slap-dash playing, not to mention a muddled soup of notes in the central waltz-like interlude of the music, abetted by the orchestra. What was going on? Despite this, moments of beauty shone through, and I must say I’m glad that at least it wasn’t boring.

In the finale the orchestra was once again at sea. The soloist struck out on his own again and left conductor and orchestra to fend for themselves, with the result that for the most part of the movement neither were playing together. As a bash-through of the piece it might have sufficed, but as a performance there should have been more.

On the whole this was a performance which was full of wasted opportunities. The young amateur orchestra clearly had some good players in them and many more rehearsals would undoubtedly have helped them get past the notes and into the music. Their valiant efforts in the face of relative unfamiliarity with the music deserve commendation and in the more coordinated parts, the orchestral playing was never less than spirited. More of that, please!

On the part of the conductor, enthusiasm is no substitute for experience, but when accompanying a difficult soloist, even the greatest amount of preparation can come to naught. Even Sir Thomas Beecham came to grief with the New York Philharmonic in his American debut while accompanying – who else? – Vladimir Horowitz. On the part of the soloist, with a lot more practice and less gratuitous posing this concert could have been half decent, not to mention a lot more cooperation with his would-be collaborators. Finally, as an ambitious independent effort, I do see potential in further concerts, with the proviso that the orchestra needs to play together far more often than I think they do.

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