Taiwanese violinist Yu-Chien Tseng joined the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) and chief conductor Alfonso Scarano in a fiery reading of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No.2. The fire almost became real when one of the strings of Tseng's bow snapped. Such was the intensity of the TPO's concert last Saturday at Prince Mahidol Hall, Mahidol University. Who better to judge than the conductor? The notoriously demanding Scarano looked pleased with the superb musicianship on display. At times, his signature frown melted into a warm beam. Devotees of the orchestra know what a rare sight that is. Maestro Scarano then led the TPO through a passionate and evocative performance of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, where the violin of the equally accomplished TPO's concertmaster Omiros Yavroumis again became the protagonist in a luscious portrayal of the eponymous Arabian Nights storyteller.
Facing government pressure, Prokofiev returned to convention with his Violin Concerto No.2, which he wrote while on a concert tour with violinist Samuel Dushkin to whom he dedicated the work. Because of his then nomadic life, Prokofiev composed the piece in three different European cities: Paris, Voronezh and Baku. The Taipei-born Tseng managed to unite the multicoloured strands of influence inherent in the Concerto's conception. The 23-year old prize-winner of the Queen Elisabeth (2012) and Tchaikovsky (2015) competitions has already recorded two albums. His first, Franck, Ravel, Debussy: French Violin Sonatas, in particular, deserves your attention for Tseng's combination of youthful vigour and virtuosity. To display his musical aptitude at Mahidol, Tseng brought his 110 million baht Guarneri violin.
Tseng's account of Prokofiev emphasised organic unity of otherwise eccentrically juxtaposed ideas (for contrast, listen to the Patricia Kopatchinskaja recording available on YouTube; her interpretation highlights the disparities). In the first movement, marked allegro moderato, Tseng stressed the romantic side, opening with a sorrowful five-beat motif, which he then wove into a fully developed melody alluding to Russian folk music. In Tseng's hands, the fiery violin linked bipolar episodes of abruptly changing keys and mood. The TPO string section stoked the solo violin with robust pizzicati. Concluding the allegro, Tseng built up energy, until it suddenly dissipated in anticipation of the second, much slower movement.
In the andante assai, Tseng invited the listeners for a graceful stroll. While the strings gently accompanied him, a long wistful melody in solo violin flowed throughout the movement. When the initial theme returned after an interruption, principal cellist Urszula Kopijkowska and violinist Yavroumis treated it to a duo in a warm, sweet tone. The final rondo took the audience to Spain with castanets cheering the soloist. The TPO playfully dialogued with Tseng through grotesque episodes and dance-like gestures, before ending the concerto with a tempestuous coda.
Based on One Thousand and One Nights, Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic suite Scheherazade set to music the tales of the fictitious Persian King Shahryar's eventual wife. Under Scarano's confident direction, the TPO captured Rimsky-Korsakov's two hallmarks: radiant, colourful orchestration and a fascination with the Orient. The brass section introduced the tyrannical Sultan with a growling motif.
Then Scheherazade herself appeared in solo violin, and Yavroumis played her theme with a tender and sensuous tone. In the second movement, solo woodwinds evoked the melancholy of the Kalendar Prince, who searches for wisdom. Lush strings entered his theme, giving it a sense of "journey". The most stirring moment came when the brass joined in, lending the Prince's music masculine strength. Thunderous brass fanfares and sweeping winds conjured up the third movement's ship striking rocks and sinking in a bitonal collision. Following the storm, Yavroumis drew on the violin's highest register to depict Scheherazade's return.
Serendipity or foresight? A curious fact underpinned the atmosphere of harmony and excitement of Saturday's programme at Mahidol: Rimsky-Korsakov and Prokofiev shared more than their country of origin. Prokofiev arranged, and himself recorded, parts of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade in his fantasia of the same name.