Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Singapore Symphony Orchestra: In Anxious Times / Review

Singapore Symphony Chorus (SSC)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra & Choruses
LIM YAU, Choral Director
LAN SHUI, Conductor
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (9 April 2009)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 April 2009.

The peculiar title of this concert comes from the Missa in Angustiis (Mass In Anxious Times) by Joseph Haydn (below), composed in 1798 when Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies were threatening to sweep across Europe. It was the timely intervention of Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Nile that halted French progress, hence its more popular title of the Nelson Mass.

It was the hundred-member strong combined chorus trained by Choral Director Lim Yau that stole the show. Such performing sizes were uncommon in Haydn’s time, but in the vast expanse of Esplanade Concert Hall’s acoustic space, that was undoubtedly the best solution. Its opening entry in a shrill and stressful Kyrie eleison (has there been a more defiant plea for mercy?) was spot-on, upon which a show of general excellence was established.

Exhibiting the best of both worlds, the chorus responded cohesively like a chamber group yet generated the volume befitting a mass throng. Exemplary control and sensitivity were displayed in the subdued opening of the Sanctus, with hope and ecstatic optimism coming through generously in the Credo and final Dona nobis pacem.

The quartet of soloists was a well-balanced one, the lion’s share of solos going to the confident soprano Klara Ek, and a sonorous Qui tollis peccata mundi gratefully and authoritatively lapped up by bass Andrew Greenan. All these contributed to a performance that radiated a distinctly warm glow to salve our anxious times of economic upheaval and theo-political uncertainty.

Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations opened the concert, receiving a clean and clear-headed account as any. Resisting the temptation for histrionics and jingoism, Music Director Lan Shui sought for musical objectivity and beauty of sound. Nowhere was the latter better revealed than in Variation 12 (B.G.N.), where acting Principal Jonathan Ayling’s cello sang with great sweetness, matched only by the balance of the strings in response.

The indefatigable Variation 9 (Nimrod) was a true model of nobilmente, neither tainted by vulgarity nor hubris, and the final Variation 14 (Edu), Elgar’s own musical self-portrait, registered with such sincerity that it was impossible to dislike. If only the pipe organ part were allowed to ring out unfettered, it would have been close to a perfect performance.

Note: The choruses which combined to perform this concert were the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Singapore Bible College Chorus, Hallelujah Chorus and The Philharmonic Chamber Chorus.

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