Monday 22 April 2024

BRAHMS REQUIEM AND SCHUMANN CELLO CONCERTO / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review


Singapore Symphony Orchestra 
Esplanade Concert Hall 
Saturday (20 April 2024) 

This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 April 2024 with the title "Concert celebrates triumph of having lived".

There is good reason to couple Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) in a same concert. The older German composer and his wife Clara were mentors to the young upstart, with the latter two maintaining a passionate platonic friendship till the end of their days. The spiritual connection between their music is real, shown in this Singapore Symphony concert led by Hans Graf. 

Schumann’s Cello Concerto opened the evening, with locally-based Chinese-Australian cellist Qin Li-Wei as soloist. Composed during his troubled late years, the concerto’s mellow and lyrical quality found a perfect advocate in Qin. Absent was outright Romantic-era virtuosity, in its place limitless song, sympathetically partnered by pared-down forces. 

The brief central slow movement saw the added voice of SSO principal Ng Pei-Sian’s cello, accompanied by gentle pizzicatos, which was sublime. The sprightly finale with accompanied cadenza provided the composer’s last flourish before his terminal descent into insanity. The warm reception accorded Qin was rewarded with two encores, both in G major, an ultra-smooth rarity in David Popper’s Etude (Op.73 No.22) and the ever-popular Prelude from J.S.Bach’s Suite No.1

There is a special relationship between the Singapore Symphony Chorus (SSC) and Brahms’ masterpiece, A German Requiem. It was with this work that the chorus made its debut in 1980 under Choo Hoey’s baton, albeit sung in English. 

In this more authenticity-driven age, Ein Deutsches Requiem would only be performed in its original German. SSC augmented by juniors from Singapore Symphony Youth Choir, numbering over 100 singers, was accompanied by SSO boosted by thirty string players from the Singapore National Youth Orchestra. All in all, a love-in for the Singapore Symphony family. 

Eschewing fire and brimstone of the Latin requiem mass, this was one of comfort and solace, with texts drawn from the Lutheran bible. In the opening chorus Selig sind, die da Leid tragen (Blessed Are They That Bear Suffering), the chorus’ hushed entry, every consonant clearly enunciated, provided a measure of the excellence to come. 

It has been quite a journey for
longest-serving SSC member alto
Ng Beng Choo (front row, second from right),
who has been singing since 1980!

The indefatigable chorus sang in all seven movements, with no break in between. They more than coped in big choral fugues, notably in the second movement Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras (All Flesh Is As Grass) and the penultimate Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt (For Here We Have No Continuing City), known for being particularly taxing. 

In the popular Wie lieblich sind dein Wohnungen (How Blessed Is Thy Dwelling Place), one could be mistaken for already being in paradise. Kudos go to choral directors Eudenice Palaruan and Wong Lai Foon for their sterling work. 

Both vocal soloists were also excellent. Danish baritone Bo Skovhus’s throaty delivery of Herr, lehre doch mich (Lord, Make Me To Know Mine End) and Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis (Behold, I Show You A Mystery) had a special resonance, the latter’s words also shared in Handel’s Messiah. Swedish soprano Susanna Andersson sang in one movement, Ich habt nun Traurigkeit (And Ye Now Therefore Have Sorrow), which was beauty itself. 

By the final chorus Selig sind die Toten (Blessed Are The Dead), the consolation was one need not face mortality with trepidation, but instead celebrate the triumph of having lived.

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