If there has been a time during the years in which I have been associated with Singapore’s musical life when quite so many choirs of an outstanding standard have performed independently of each other, I certainly cannot remember it. But, as a visiting Australian lady said to me today as we sat waiting for the latest visiting choir to start its concert, “We just sort of stumbled across this one”; too often we find out about these things long after they have taken place.
Despite this choir having made the journey all the way from England, publicity was not so much limited as non-existent, and while the word-of-mouth system (which was how I got to hear of this concert) clearly worked – there was a goodly crowd assembled – I can’t but think how many more Singaporean choral music lovers would have relished having had the chance to be here. They missed something pretty exceptional.
The St Catharine’s College Consort – 8 singers drawn from the choir of St Catherine’s College Cambridge – were in Singapore to give a lunchtime concert at St Andrew’s Cathedral. Their programme was just 45 minutes, and began and ended with an organ solo, but it was 45 minutes of sheer choral bliss.
Good organ playing is rare in Singapore. The Esplanade gave up on organ recitals years ago (perhaps they were attracting the wrong sort of people), Victoria Concert Hall stages them intermittently but usually covers up the organ as much possible by pulling in other artists to steal the show, and so far as I am aware, not a single one of those churches in Singapore which boasts fine organs ever opens its doors to regular recitals. They are missing a trick. A lunchtime recital not only attracts plenty of dedicated followers of the organ, but opens eyes and ears of casual passers-by to an area of music often regarded as too specialist to be of any real interest.
It’s a long time since I have heard such an invigorating and stimulating performance of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G major (BWV541) – in Singapore or anywhere else - as that which framed this concert. Owen Reid played it with wonderful vitality and brought out that immensely sunny disposition which so attracted Albert Schweitzer to the piece. He wrote poetically about it being infused by a bright, cheerful light. The St Andrew’s organ, part pipe - part electronic, sounded absolutely sizzling in this, and Reid’s brisk, highly articulate playing meant that nobody’s heart could have failed to be lifted by his effervescent playing.
As I left the cathedral after the concert, I overheard one of the choir’s sopranos suggesting that the thing that had gone best for her was Byrd’s Sing Joyfully. I’m not sure about that. It certainly went very well, and again, as with the organ prelude, the vitality and energy of the choir was irresistible. But if asked to name the one piece which stood out above the others in sheer performance quality, I’d have to opt for John Bennet’s madrigal, All Creatures Now. Here the exquisite balance director (and second bass) Edward Wickham drew from his singers using the most subtle and surreptitious direction, coupled with their immaculate diction and tremendously crisp rhythmic vigour, made this a truly outstanding performance.
Perhaps most memorable of all was an ingenious arrangement of The Beatles’ hit, Money can’t buy you love which was mischievously brought into the programme as an anonymous Elizabethan madrigal called “Diamond Ring”. Elizabethan it was – Elizabeth II that is – and madrigal-like it most certainly was, for this arrangement turned it into a gem of clever contrapuntal activity and intimate part-writing which was superbly delivered by these eight singers. It really did come across as a beautifully written Elizabethan madrigal, sounding neither incongruous nor ridiculous in the company of some genuine examples of the genre.
One soprano was sent to sit out the medieval Kyrie Deus Creator Omnium included in the programme as an example of music contemporaneous with the founding of St Catherine’s. Predating Renaissance polyphony yet post-dating medieval monody, this was an intriguing and tantalising glimpse into a rarely heard musical world which would have been the kind of sound reverberating around English chapels and cathedrals in the 15th century. I doubt such things have been heard in Singapore more than a couple of times before.
Only very occasionally did the eight voices seem insufficient to carry the musical message fully. In Wilbye’s Weep, Weep, Mine Eyes it was not the number of singers but a slight tendency towards top-heaviness which denied the madrigal of its full impact, and to a certain extent that was an issue with Wendell Whalum’s arrangement of the spiritual The Lily of the Valley. We really needed more bass depth and inner weight to give this its full impact. Not so Gordon Langford’s opulent arrangement of The Oak and the Ash. Here, Wickham had balanced his singers so well that the rich, lush harmonies really did sound as if the choir was twice as large.
Wickham’s short and neat introductions helped make this a pleasingly informal event – as lunch time recitals should always be – but I wondered at his assertion that Moeran’s setting of Shakespeare’s Sigh no more, Ladies was “jazzy”. E J Moeran had a distinctive musical voice which blends a sense of nostalgia with a vaguely bitter-sweet English pastoral-ness – and that, rather than any obvious jazziness, was exactly what was delivered in this exquisite performance.
Two part-songs by Stanford completed this lovely programme. However, two small concerns arose here. The occasional contrapuntal lines of Beati Quorum Via were lost by a very week tenor line and an overpowering soprano one, while the fact that the two alto voices – one male one female – really did not begin to blend was cruelly exposed. Sounding awfully like Sullivan’s The Lost Chord but without the aroma of the Victorian parlour, The Long Day Closes had something of surfeit of sentimentality about it, which was slightly undermined by the shallow bass.
But, as an exhibition of both fine choral singing and exquisite music-making, this was possibly the best in the recent upsurge of choral concerts here.