Tuesday, 15 March 2016

THE SILENT REALM IN MAJESTY / The Philharmonic Chamber Choir / Review

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (13 March 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 March 2016 with the title "Choral concert focuses on longing for spiritual peace". 

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir, founded by conductor Lim Yau, is now in its 22nd year. The choir's greatest strength lies in its programming of concerts with specific themes. This concert of German a cappella choral music, guest-conducted by Manfred Schreier from the Freiburg Hochschule fur Musik, was centred on man's longing for spiritual peace.

Opening the afternoon was Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly's Jesus und die Krämer (Jesus and the Traders), a narration of Christ's display of righteous indignation at the Temple of Jerusalem. After an opening fanfare, massed voices and a fugue represented the hubbub of commerce that had defiled the holy place. The repeated chant of “Gottloss” (Godless) was the serious warning which Jesus issued to all present, essentially a call for repentence.

The choir then settled into two songs by Josef Rheinberger, the soft cushioned harmonies of Abendlied (Evensong) and Ich liebe, weil erhöret der Herr (I Love the Lord, because He hath heard), both of which provided a calming sense of solace. The choir's sensitivity to words and music made these sound totally convincing.

Genesis, Clytus Gottwald's choral arrangement of the orchestral prelude to Haydn's The Creation, known as The Representation of Chaos, with words by Moses Mendelssohn based on the Torah, then taxed the 26-strong ensemble. A deliberate absence of melodic line and unstable tonal centres were to throw off any semblance of order. Were the singers in pitch and in sync, or not? Or was that the general idea of the work that closed calmly in C minor?

A better depiction of heavenly bliss than Finn Jaako Mantyjärvi's Die Stimme des Kindes (The Voice of the Child) would be hard to find. Over a gently rocking rhythm, the music portrayed the sleep of innocents with hosts of angels, before melting into a soft peal of bells. This aural balm continued into Gottwald's transcription of Mahler's Ich bin der welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the World) from the Ruckert-Lieder song cycle.   

Was this an improvement over the original for solo voice with piano or orchestral accompaniment? It certainly sounded more fussy, with voices sharing both solo part and orchestral details, which included a mellifluous soprano line that soared towards the celestial realm.

There were two Bach transcriptions, beginning with Knut Nystedt's revisionist look at the well-known chorale Komm, Susser Tod (Come, Sweet Death) which had eight singers planted in the stalls. The antiphonal bending of pitches and off-phase entries provided a brief haunting sense of disorientation, with order restored in Dieter Schnebel's more conventional transcription of Contrapunctus I from The Art of Fugue.  

Completing each half of the concert were Hugo Wolf's Sechs Geistliche Lieder (6 Sacred Songs) and Johannes Brahms' late Fünf Gesänge (5 Songs). The first probed man's uneasy quest for solace, where Eichendorff's words Herrlich ein im Stillen Reich (Silent Realm In Majesty) provided the concert's title. The second was an autumnal reflection at the end of life's journey, one rewarded with eternal peace. The choir's response was one of quiet rejoicing and radiant equanimity, and given their demanding programme, also for a job well done.

Manfred Schreier receives his applause.
Two Sibelius aficionados meet:
Lim Yau, Singapore's foremost Sibelius conductor
with Erik T.Tawaststjerna, Head of Piano
at Helsinki's Sibelius Academy and son of
Erik Tawaststjerna, Sibelius' biographer.

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