The Living Room @ The Arts House
11 May 2013)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 May 2013 with the title "Intimate Britten".
The celebration of Benjamin Britten’s centenary in
Singapore has come in earnest, heralded by the
Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s production of his blockbuster War Requiem in April, and now with local
tenor Wilson Goh’s two-concert tribute of a more intimate kind. No composer has
quite matched Britten in setting English texts to music, who so skilfully
married poetic eloquence with a rarefied and austere beauty.
The first evening was devoted to Britten’s five canticles, song settings for tenor, various combinations of voices and instruments on inspirations of a biblical or spiritual kind. Performed straight through, these demanding works would have strained the endurance and concentration of musicians and audience, and so each canticle was prefaced by introductory statements that were both helpful and educational.
Counter-tenor Cyril Wong, an award-winning poet himself, spoke on the origins of the texts while Goh explained each piece with musical examples. Britten without tears or fears, it would appear, but this gambit worked a charm as it kept the small audience totally attentive and engaged. Then the music began.
Tenor Adrian Poon sang the First Canticle, entitled My Beloved Is Mine, with a spring in his step. The lightest of the five pieces, its yearning and melisma came through winningly, and one was allowed to ponder the words which seemed deliberately ambivalent. Was this agape love as espoused by organised religion or one of a homoerotic variety?
The Second Canticle, Abraham And Isaac, was a duet uniting tenor Goh and countertenor Wong as Genesis father and son on the touchy subject of child sacrifice and unwavering faith. Their voices blended beautifully, Goh’s rich resonance with Wong’s guileless innocence. Again the conversations between mankind and creator suggested a kind of divine ménage a trois. Little wonder printed texts were not provided.
Alan Kartik’s evocative French horn added an element of drama and conflict in the Third Canticle, from the poem Still Falls The Rain by Edith Sitwell. Challenged by each brassy rebuke, Goh’s response was one of sonorous sobriety and ultimately solace. With both declamatory threads united at the last page, the piece sought comfort in the midst of tragedy.
For the Fourth Canticle, Goh and Wong was joined by baritone Ong Kok Leong to enact an imagined scene by T.S. Eliot of the Three Wise Men on their journey seeking the newborn Jesus. This version was not all gold, frankincense and myrrh, but three grumpy old codgers bemoaning their difficult journey, and concluding the mission to be just “satisfactory”. The reading was more than satisfactory, it was better than good.
The terminally ill Britten omitted the piano for his Fifth Canticle (another T.S.Eliot setting), a gesture symbolic of his impending death. So replacing the ubiquitous and ever-sensitive pianist Shane Thio was harpist Jana Ang Fries, who provided an ethereal accompaniment to Poon’s final submission. Here was Britten crafting his own epitaph, no longer a rebel but one peaceably submitting to the inevitable. This was a sublime way to close a concert of much subtlety and imagination.