Monday, 31 August 2009

Transcendent Love / Vocal Recital by MELVIN TAN / Review

MELVIN TAN Vocal Recital
with Shane Thio, Piano
Esplanade Recital Studio
Saturday (29 August 2009)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 31 August 2009.

Tenor recitals in Singapore are infrequent events, and one centred wholly on English art song is a positive rarity. English-trained tenor Melvin Tan, who will be joining Flanders Opera (Belgium), gave listeners more accustomed to German Lieder and Italian opera a taste of what they have been missing.Virtually every work on this ground-breaking programme was a Singapore premiere. Benjamin Britten’s Canticles, written for his companion Peter Pears, focused on varied aspects of love. Three of these provided Tan (above), with thespian skills as commanding as vocal ones, much scope for expression.

The first, My Beloved Is Mine, repeats a variation of “he is mine” at the end of each strophe, reiterating the relationship between man and God. Tan’s clear and sonorous lines, dressed with sustained and dazzling melismata were a pleasure to behold. The second, Abraham and Isaac, was a melodrama for two voices, with mezzo-soprano Anna Koor sharing the limelight. Here, the love of a father for his son, in conflict with faith in God, provided the dramatic tussles until Deus ex machina, God’s hand of intervention allowed for a harmonious denouement.

The fifth Canticle, The Death of St. Narcissus was also the most haunting. Fontane Liang’s harp was sensuous soothing counterpoint that lulled the eponymous god to his demise. These and the W.H.Auden-inspired cycle On This Island showcased Tan’s wide-ranging moods and emotions, from sober contemplation, through subtle humour to wild ecstatic climaxes.

Veteran collaborative pianist Shane Thio (left) was a most sensitive and imaginative partner. Together with a string quartet comprising violinists Grace Lee and Loke Hoe Yong, violist Marietta Ku and cellist Lin Juan, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ greatest song cycle On Wenlock Edge (1909) was launched.
Going beyond mere pastoral musings, its six songs probed various vistas of existence, coloured by a foreboding of the cataclysm to come. Tan was in his element, as vivid a storyteller as a singer could possibly be. The piano quintet partnership gave close to perfect support, their impressionistic colours, especially in the bell-echoes of Bredon Hill, revealed Vaughan Williams’ debt to Ravel.

Not all the works were this serious. Anna Koor (left) provided light relief with three English folksong settings (The Salley Gardens, The Ash Grove and Oliver Cromwell) by Britten, and Tan finally let his hair down in the encores by Noel Coward (Mad Dogs and Englishmen, A Room With A View in duet with Koor) and Dick Lee’s Bunga Sayang. A total charmer.

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