17 October 2019

The Orchestra of the Year 2019

Photo Credit: Cheung Wai Lok/HK Phil

At last night’s Gramophone Awards held in the opulent splendour of London’s Connaught Square Rooms, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was named Orchestra of the Year 2019.  This is a great accolade for an orchestra just 45 years old, based in a city well away from any of the traditional centres of musical excellence, and especially when you consider that other contenders for the award included the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Rome, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Les Siècles.  The Gramophone Orchestra of the Year Award is made on the basis of recommendations from Gramophone magazine critics and editorial staff who base their selection on recordings released over the past year.  Once they have drawn up the shortlist, it is left to the public to vote for the winner after having, we would hope, carefully listened to the year’s recordings from all 10 shortlisted orchestras.

For many, the award going to the Hong Kong Philharmonic will come as a huge surprise.  After all, unlike many of the other contenders, they are not a major recording orchestra; indeed, to date their recording output has been notably unremarkable and dominated by niche repertory in indifferent recording and performing quality.  Many of the early recordings they made for the nascent Naxos and Marco Polo labels were not so much unremarkable as downright poor, and rarely even made it into the review columns of Gramophone magazine.  Even today, a basic search of recordings by the Hong Kong Philharmonic on any of the international sites yields a lot of recordings made over the past 40 years few of which have ever impinged on to the consciousness of serious collectors. 

But it was a remarkably brave idea from the orchestra’s current music director, Jaap van Zweden, which suddenly rocketed the Hong Kong Philharmonic not just to international fame as a recording orchestra, but got the music-loving public flocking to Hong Kong in their droves to hear them live.  In 2015 he embarked, with the orchestra, on a four-year project to perform the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in concert performances on the stage of the Hong Kong Cultural Arts Centre, which has been the performing home of the orchestra since 1989, and is now showing its age both visually and aurally.  Built at a time when few other cities anywhere in Asia had a state-of-the-art concert hall, the Cultural Arts Centre was one of the parting gifts from the British in anticipation of their handover of their former colony to Chinese rule in 1997.  It has done well, but with its tiles that look increasingly like the walls of a 1970s British public toilet (with, sometimes, the aroma to go with it), a weird wedge shape (it was described at the time as a symbolic representation of China’s claim that they would govern Hong Kong with a “One Country, Two Systems” policy) and an acoustic which does nothing to enhance the music for the audience and incorporates a number of pretty significant blind spots to those attempting to perform on stage, it is now very much the poor man of the region; especially considering the splendid concert halls which have since sprouted up in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and all over mainland China.  It seems hardly the ideal venue to record something which is going to take the musical world by storm.

Each opera of the Ring was presented twice in live concerts, one a season, from Das Rheingold in 2015 to Götterdämmerung in 2018, and each performance was recorded by Naxos who then released each opera as a separate box set.  As the cycle progressed, so word spread around and more and more took an interest in what Hong Kong was doing.  On top of that, speaking with my critic’s hat on (or through it, as some might say) as the cycle progressed, each performance seemed more polished and secure, until with Götterdämmerung we had something which was really, really special.  So it was that opera, which attracted the Gramophone team and prompted them to put it up as a nomination for Orchestra of the Year.

The Hong Kong Philharmonic has been keen to point out that they are the first orchestra in Asia ever to have been nominated as (and now awarded) Orchestra of the Year.  That, again, may cause some surprise. What about those excellent orchestras in Japan, Qatar, Malaysia and Singapore, not to mention those notable ones in China?  Many of them have a much higher recording profile than the HKPO – the NHK Symphony seems to have been a fixture on the recording circuit for decades, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra produced a series of absolutely fabulous CDs for BIS in the early noughties, while the Singapore Symphony have been churning out well-received CDs (again, mostly on the BIS label) for years.  And the Shanghai Philharmonic has just been signed up to be an exclusive recording orchestra by Deutsche Grammophon. 

All this goes to show just what a remarkable achievement van Zweden’s Ring Cycle has been.  While one can argue that a great recording of an opera is far more than a showcase for an orchestra (something van Zweden was himself anxious to stress in his acceptance speech for the Gramophone Awards) a comment that has resonated in almost every review of the HK/Wagner cycle is typified by this quote from Andrew Clements in The Guardian; “Some elements have remained at a high standard throughout [the cycle] – namely the quality of the playing of the Hong Kong Philharmonic”.  Looking back over the reviews I’ve written about the orchestra, I note that in Gramophone magazine as far back as 2013 I was writing (with reference to a recording of Tan Dun’s music newly released on the Naxos Label); “This is a vivid demonstration of true orchestral virtuosity”.  (I like to be proved right once in a while!)

I first heard the Hong Kong Philharmonic in the late 1980s, and I was left pretty unimpressed.  As one colleague suggested, it comprised largely dispirited players who would never get a seat in a world-class orchestra and increasingly disillusioned young players who aspired to one.  I’m not sure that was a fair comment, but it certainly was difficult to argue with when you heard them on occasions.  At one point, after the departure of David Atherton as its principal conductor, there were even doubts about its sustainability.  But first Edo de Waart and then Jaap van Zweden revitalised it, brought in some brilliant players, and now, after seven years at the helm, van Zweden has completed the task most thought impossible; to make it the finest orchestra in the world (in the view of Gramophone magazine’s readership – and they comprise some of the world’s most perceptive and demanding music lovers).

So what comes next?  Will the orchestra start attracting the same level of international attention for its mainstage week-by-week season concerts as it did for the one-off, but headline grabbing Ring cycle?

No mention of Hong Kong today can pass without comment on the fragile political situation which is unravelling there.  With street demonstrations happening on a daily basis and the world holding its breath to see what China will do to stamp its authority on its recalcitrant Special Administrative Zone, how is the Hong Kong Philharmonic coping?  Diplomatically, a press release issued from the orchestra to coincide with the Gramophone Award points out that it allows its players and staff to express their own views on the current situation peacefully and holds no official position itself.  But it is being affected with concerts cancelled or re-timed in anticipation of civil unrest.  And the postponement this year of the orchestra’s biggest annual event – the Swire Symphony Under the Starts concert held against the spectacular setting of the Hong Kong Harbourfront – shows just how fragile its future might be.  This is by far and away the highest profile event it stages, and while the financial loss cannot be insignificant, the loss of prestige may be even more daunting.  So much is riding on how the current political climate in Hong Kong resolves itself, and that includes the very future of the orchestra.  Unless and until Hong Kong comes to its senses and starts behaving once again like a civilised city in the 21st century, visiting music lovers are not going to risk running the gauntlet of violent protestors and violent police retaliation, even if the prize is as artistically enticing as the Ring Cycle.

One thing is certain, however.  With this Award to its credit, the Hong Kong Philharmonic suddenly has a lot more friends in lot more high places than it had before, and if nothing else, it tells the world that there is more to Hong Kong than tall buildings, tourist kitsch, shopping, tear gas and face masks; and that, alone, sets it way above the other nine orchestras in this year’s shortlist.

16 October 2019

Disgusted of BIS writes...

As a critic I never set out to shake the prams of record company executives (or artists, for that matter), but when I accentually do, the results can be pretty spectacular.  None, so far, has matched the remarkable hissy fit of Robert von Bahr of BIS records.  He not only threw all his toys out of the pram, but the blankets, pillows and his clothes as well!  This letter goes to the head of my pile of amazing over-reactions;


Dear Mr. Rochester,
while you are obviously entitled to your thoughts, however ill-informed, I would be very grateful, if you checked your facts before going in print with them.

 Firstly you call this a CD.  It isn't - it is an SACD, which, to some people, is an important factor  (yes, I see that you later actually write SACD, which makes it even more confusing).

Then about BIS ecopak.  Here I need to take issue with you, since what you write doesn't amount to any logical reasoning;  rather the contrary as I will show.
- Yes, we have spent a long time on flights to be able to record the organs, Masaaki Suzuki wants to record.  In the end, it is easier to transport us to the organ than the organ to us.

Does this fact, which is quite true, absolve us from the goal of making as little environmental damage as possible?  I find this a most illogical and - frankly - unpleasant way of reasoning, especially in this day and age.  So just because we are necessarily wasteful in one area absolves us from trying our best in another?  Oh dear!!!
- And, then, since you open the box and are talking about flight kilometers:

We produce the entire BIS catalogue new releases in ecopaks now.  We're talking a good 100'000 discs/year now, gradually going up to c. 300'000 in a couple of years, saving c. 42% weight.  Most of our shipments go overseas in either direction, to the same places as our recording personnel, so our numers are entirely comparable.  We are saving c. 45 grammes per SACD.  This means now c. 4'500 kilos in less weight, going up to way past 10'000 kilos/year in the near future.  That is rather more than one person's c. 75 kilo, going the same way, even if you multiply that with our c. 60 recordings/year.  So your reasoning is actually to our favour!

So, Mr. Rochester, if you want to dazzle people with your mathematical reasoning, do think it through to the logical conclusion!  That's what I would call intellectual honesty rather than your snide remark.

 - OK, you don't like the ecopak.  Your privilege.  But don't call them flimsy, because they are NOT.  And, if you don't believe me, take an ordinary jewel case and an ecopak and drop them on the floor.  I'd bet I know which will withstand it and protect the SACD, and which will not.  Add the lesser place on the shelf and the much more beautiful surface, and the fact that the ecopak is made entirely from renewable and ecological sources, whereas the jewel case is made from plastic, and there we are.  If you cannot remove the detachable paper sticker with your nail, something that takes me all of 3 seconds, then why not cut it open with something sharp?
It is one thing to instinctively dislike something new, and quite another to invent unfair reasons for doing so.

I am sorry to be so upset, but, in the end, it is initiatives like the BIS ecopak, in all kinds of walks of life, that will do something tangible to save this planet.  Your review is doing nothing to further that cause.
Robert von Bahr, CEO, BIS records


So, that's me put in my place!

I’m sorry Mr Bahr never got round to that bit of my review (see below) when I commented on the music, the performance and the recording quality, but perhaps record company CEOs have different priorities to critics.  I’m pleased, however, that he praises my mathematical reasoning - having got 17% at my mock Maths O Level, my school forbad me from sitting the real one; how my old maths master would laugh to learn that a company CEO seems impressed with my maths today!
For the record, I have always hated CD plastic jewel cases, and any alternative is welcome.  If the “Bis ecopak” is the way to go, so be it, although even after a month, mine is already beginning to look very tatty.

Feel free to comment – but ONLY after you’ve bought the disc.  It’s really well worth buying and listening to, even if the company’s CEO feels that is not so important.


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

  • Prelude & Fugue in C. BWV531 [7:30]
  • Fantasia & Fugue in C minor, BWV537 [8:48]
  • Chorale Preludes on “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr‘“, BWV 717, 711 and 715 [8:48]
  • Chorale Partita on “Ach was soll ich Sünder machen?“, BWV770 [12:11]
  • Toccata in C, BWV566a [10:24]
  • Prelude & Fugue in C minor, BWV546 [10:58]
  • Chorale Preludes on “Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend“, BWV 709, 726 [4:24]
  • Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV582 [14:36]
Masaaki Suzuki (organ)

rec. May 2018, Freiberg Cathedral, Germany

BIS BIS-2421 [79:07]

Denied the obvious choice of presenting Bach’s organ works in any kind of chronological order – although booklet-note writer Albert Clement tries his best to date the works on this disc – Masaaki Suzuki has tried a few tricks to present single disc compilations which are both attractive and coherent in his complete cycle for Bis.  For disc 3 he adopts, as he had for the two previous issues in the series, a mix of chorale-based pieces framed by larger works incorporating fugues.  But he has done something different here; he has fixed the programme tonally on C.  To maintain the C tonality Suzuki includes a C major version of the Toccata in E BWV566 (Clement argues that the two versions are “equally authoritative”, but I have my doubts). Another programming innovation is the inclusion of multiple chorale preludes based on a single chorale. 

A less welcome innovation comes from Bis, who have elected to issue the CD not in a traditional plastic jewel case but in what they trendily describe as a “Bis ecopak”; basically a flimsy cardboard cover held together by an adhesive label of such strength that to get to the CD you have to tear the cover.  A minor irritation, no doubt, but enough to sour the experience of an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable CD.

Since Suzuki is not recording his Bach series in close proximity of both place and time - by my reckoning he (and the Bis team) have already built up a carbon footprint of some 18,000 kms flying between Groningen in The Netherlands (Vol.1), Kobe in Japan (Vol.2) and now on to Freiberg in Germany, and the recordings span some five years – each recording offers something very different in terms of sound and interpretation.  Here, on the magnificent Silbermann organ at Freiberg, Suzuki has such an opulent stoplist and sumptuous acoustic to play with, that he eschews the somewhat flamboyant ornamentation and extravagant tempi of the previous issues.  All of this wonderful sound is superbly caught in this Bis SACD recording.

As for the playing, Suzuki combines stylistic authority and musical insight with a fabulous technical mastery – there are some wonderfully florid flourishes in the third of the Allein Gott Chorale Preludes and some truly dazzling footwork in the youthfully exuberant, if musically meagre, BWV531 Prelude – and while he employs the full resources of this superb 1714 instrument, there is never any hint that registrations are dictated by the sound they produce rather than their musical suitability.

The climax of the disc is certainly the Passacaglia & Fugue, which is perhaps the work which might most attract the casual listener: the organ aficionado will need no enticement for this release other than the knowledge that a masterly Bach interpreter is presiding over a fabulous Bach-era instrument.  Suzuki’s is a vividly imaginative and wonderfully coherent interpretation, which flows easily through a glorious panoply of vivid organ colours.  He combines majesty and wit, strength and subtlety in a performance which is utterly compelling; the icing on the cake of what is a very fine release indeed.

Marc Rochester

As a pure sonic spectacle, Volume three of Masaaki Suzuki’s Bach organ cycle hits new heights, while as a masterly presentation of Bach in and around the tonal centre of C, it is simply peerless.

11 October 2019

November Classical Music Concerts in Singapore

As ever, November is a very busy month for classical music lovers in Singapore, and my list this month is both full and, I fear, incomplete.  I have tried to include all the concerts that have been brought to my attention but if I have missed any out, please get in touch.  I have also included in the listings the name of the ticketing agency (in blue capitals).  Concert ticketing in Singapore is an absolute pain since it is in the hands of largely commercial organsiations with non-existent musical or artistic consciousness.  So looking up these events on their website is only marginally more informative than looking them up here!

The venues this month are;
ESP = Esplanade Theatres on the Bay Concert Hall
ESP RS - Esplanade Recital Studio
ESP AN - Esplanade Annexe Studio
VCH -Victoria Concert Hall
OCA - Auditorium, Studio 10, Orchard Central
VOS = Voices of Singapore, Waterloo Street, Bencoolen
YST = Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music Concert Hall
YST OH = YST Orchestra Hall (3rd floor)
UCC = National University of Singapore Cultural Centre
SOTA = Singapore School of the Arts, Bras Basah
AAC = Aliwal Arts Centre

Friday, 1 November 2019
  • 7.30pm ESP To My Friends Pictured Within - Rachel Barton Pine (vln), SSO, Andrew Litton (cond.)   SISTIC                  
  • 7.30pm VCH Brahms 4th With Neil Varon - Musicians' Initiative, Neil Varon (cond.)   SISTIC                  
Saturday, 2 November 2019 
  • 5.00pm OCA The Experiment - Amity Chamber Orchestra, Muhamad Yusri (cond.), Hoang Van Hoc, horn   PEATIX                  
  • 6pm & 8pm ESP RS Mozart 36 - Shuxiang Wang & Cherie Khor (pno)   SISTIC                  
  • 7.30pm VCH Alexander Malofeev (pno)    MW                  
  • 7.30pm ESP Schnee - London Sinfonietta   SISTIC                  
  • 9.30pm ESP AN After Hours  Steve Reich Double Sextet - Opus Novus  ESP                  
Sunday, 3 November 2019 
  • 5.00pm VOS Roaming Soundscapes  - Voices of Singapore   PEATIX                  
Tuesday, 5 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm YST OH The Silent Cry - Chamber Singers, Chong Wailun (cond)   YST                  
Friday, 8 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm ESP Harmonies of the Universe - SSO and Chorus, Andrew Litton (cond)   SISTIC                  
  • 7.30pm ESP RS Voice of Bernard Sabatier -  Serine de Labaume & others (violin and string instruments)    PEATIX  
  • 7.30pm VCH Gala Concert - Singapore Lyric Opera SISTIC                
Saturday, 9 November 2019 
  • 5.00pm UCC Celebrations for Prof. Ho Hwee Long - NUS Wind Orchestra, CFA
  • 7.30pm YST Fascinating Sounds and Rhythms - Opus Novus   YST                  
  • 8.00pm ESP RS Mozart 36 - Siew Yi Li Mozart Violin Sonatas  SISTIC                  
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm YST Curtis on Tour - Jasmine Choi (flute), Ju-Young Baek (vln), Roberto Diaz (vla), Christine Lee (cello), Kyu Yeon Kim (pno)   YST                  
Wednesday, 13 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm YST Shlomo Mintz recital - Shlomo Mintz (vln)   EVENTBRITE                  
Thursday, 14 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm VCH French Connections - Jeremy Chiew   Voilah French Singapore Festival                  
  • 7.30pm YST Of Gypsies and Love - Cantiamo   YST                  
Friday, 15 November 2019
  • 7.30pm SOTA Les Elements - James Ng Les Surprises  Voilah French Singapore Festival                  
Saturday, 16 November 2019
  • 2pm & 4pm VCH Emily Saves the Orchestra - Yeo Xing Tong   SISTIC                  
Sunday, 17 November 2019 
  • 2.00pm VCH Emily Saves the Orchestra SSO,  - Joshua Tan (Cond)   SISTIC                  
Thursday, 21 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm AAC The Three Feathers - L'Arietta   PEATIX                  
Friday, 22 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm AAC The Three Feathers L'Arietta   PEATIX                  
  • 7.30pm VCH Pastoral Symphony - Lucas & Arthur Jussen (pno), SSO, Gabriel Bebeselea (cond)   SISTIC                  
Saturday, 23 November 2019 
  • 3pm & 7.30pm AAC The Three Feathers - L'Arietta   PEATIX                  
  • 7.30pm VCH Pastoral Symphony - Lucas & Arthur Jussen (pno), SSO, Gabriel Bebeselea (cond)   SISTIC                  
Sunday, 24 November 2019 
  • 12.30pm ESP RS BH Christmas Peace: The Music of Sylvain Guinet    SISTIC                  
  • 3.00pm AAC The Three Feathers - L'Arietta   PEATIX                  
Thursday, 28 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm VCH A Violin to Cherish - Akiko Suwanai (vln), SSO, Mario Venzago (cond)   SISTC                  
Friday, 29 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm ESP RS Due Senses: Harp & Piano - Laura Peh (harp), Azariah Tan (pno)   SISTIC                  
  • 7.30pm VCH A Violin to Cherish - Akiko Suwanai (vln), SSO, Mario Venzago (cond)   SISTC                  
Saturday, 30 November 2019 
  • 7.30pm ESP RS Due Senses: Harp & Piano - Laura Peh (harp), Azariah Tan (pno)   SISTIC                  
  • 7.30pm ESP SNYO In Concert - Elgar Cello Concerto SNYO, Ng Pei-Sian (cello), Peter Stark (cond)   SISTIC                  

Moody Bassoony

Stravinsky suggested that the bassoon solo which opens The Rite of Spring should be put up a semitone every year so as to retain its ability to frighten bassoonists and create a sense of unease.  Nobody does this (that I know of) but French composer Phillipe Hersant has gone some way down that path with his Niggun for solo bassoon, which seems to be an atmospheric reflection of Stravinsky’s solo coupled with all kinds of weird and wonderful effects which stretch the bassoonist’s technique to its limits but do rather get in the way of the music.  Introducing her debut album with Hersant’s daunting solo, Jo Anne Sukumaran, who styles herself “one of Singapore’s leading bassoonists”, shows that, if nothing else, she possesses as secure a technique as anyone, and while she conveys the sense of strain which Stravinsky – and, I imagine, Hersant – was after, she clearly has plenty of technique in reserve not just to play what is written but to make some kind of sense out of it.  In all fairness, the Stravinsky connection is one I draw myself; Hersant himself has built the piece on a Hasidic Hebrew song with the bassoon intended to “imitate the inflections and soulful quality of the human voice”.  Whatever you take from this seven-minute demonstration of bassoonism, the one unarguable truth is that Sukumaran delivers it with complete assurance.

As had Debussy before him, Saint-Saëns set out to write a sonata for every wind instrument but died before he could complete the project.  The last of these Sonatas was for Bassoon and Piano and dates from 1921; seven years after Debussy started on – but did not complete – a sonata for bassoon with clarinet, trumpet and piano, and only a few months before Poulenc wrote his Sonata for clarinet and bassoon.  The gentle, graceful and elegant musical language belies its relative modernity (let’s not forget this is a work written less than 100 years ago, so is firmly rooted in that fake stylistic period ill-taught music students and their ill-informed teachers like to label “20th century”) but transcends the fickleness of taste by being beautifully written for the instrument and masterfully combining impressive virtuoso display with real musical integrity.  Again, the virtuoso demands are amply met by Sukumaran, even if, at times, she seems to rely on her magnificent pianist, Kseniia Vokhmianina, to convey the musical substance – it’s as if Sukumaran deals with the individual technical features while Vokhmianina gels it all together.  I suppose this is evidence of an ideal partnership – complementary rather than duplicatory – so it is not something which detracts in any way from the overall performance.

With the exception of a flowing, eloquent, but ultimately uneventful piece of mood-painting, aptly titled Réflexion, by the Norwegian bassoonist Robert Rennes, France is very much at the core of this recorded programme.  In addition to the Saint-Saëns we have a Sonatine by the Polish/French composer Alexandre Tansman, three pieces for Bassoon and Piano by Charles Koechlin (whose musical life effectively began during a period of convalescence in Algeria, which may account for a certain exoticism in his music) and some Popular Spanish Songs by the French-trained Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla.  All of these are played with great precision and a strong feeling of security with Sukumaran’s impressive security of technical command complemented by Vokhmianina’s graceful pianism.  Why such Francophilia?  The answer seems to lie in the player’s own musical taste – she certainly seems to be quite at home in this early-20th century musical idiom, where the emphasis seems to be more on creating a mood than grandstanding expression or high drama.  But there appears to be nothing French in Sukumaran’s background – the nearest her biography gets to France is mention of a period studying at Lugano in Switzerland – and it is her Indian roots which she seems proudest to celebrate in a work which was specially written for this recording and gives the album its title.

Night Garden is a joint composition by Sukumaran and the tabla player, Sanjay Kansa Banik.  If, on paper, there might seem to be some kind of cultural and musical chasm between a Bassoon, Tabla and Tambūrā (the long-necked lute that makes that wonderfully buzzing drone noise which underpins so much Hindi music) in reality the combination works perfectly, the bassoon in effect revisiting its role in the opening Niggun as an imitator of the human voice rather than an instrument in its own right.  There is, however, a major problem with Night Garden.  Once it has started and created it effect, it simply stops, providing not so much a thoughtful and original experiment in this combination of instruments as a tiny, almost picture-postcard image of an attractive but ultimately sterile east-meets-west portrait.

As a debut disc this does what it should do; it presents a fine player in an attractive programme which makes one want to hear more of her.  As a musical presentation, it has a slightly superficial feel to it, and one hopes that when one does hear more of Jo Anne Sukumaran, it will explore more of her musical personality and individuality and possibly dig deeper into the obvious strengths she has both as a bassoonist and as an insightful musician.

09 October 2019

A Concert of Applause

Image result for nidaros cathedral choir
My musical background is firmly rooted in the English cathedral tradition of boys and men’s choirs accompanied by organ.  To this day, when all other musical ensembles have become my daily bread and butter, it is that unique sound which remains my true musical and spiritual home.  While I look back with a certain nostalgia to the great choirs of my youth – Guildford and later St. Paul’s cathedrals under the inspirational directorship of Barry Rose, one of the greatest of all choral directors – I still thrill to the sound when I get to hear it.  Recent visits to the cathedrals at Truro and Gloucester satisfy me that this great tradition, despite opposition from the equality brigade who seem to think that choirs MUST have girls in them to be politically legitimate, is still very much alive and kicking.

And it’s not just England that celebrates this superlative musical ensemble.  For the second time in as many years the boys and men of Norway’s Nidaros Cathedral took to the stage at Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall for a sold-out concert of sacred music. 

The Nidaros choir is far bigger than any English cathedral choir (even St Paul’s in its heyday), and the lavish programme book listed no less than 16 men and 31 boys.  How many boys actually took to the stage at the start of the concert I cannot say, but by the time the first half had run its course, two of them had dropped out, victims of a punishing schedule which had seen them leave Norway, perform in Taiwan and move on to Singapore all within a matter of days.  But perhaps the real reason for this outbreak of collapsing boys was not so much the travel schedule as the extraordinarily unsympathetic programme director Bjørn Moe had imposed on them.  The two-hour concert saw the entire choral forces singing in every single item.  Not even the most hard-core professional choral group would attempt such a feat of endurance without ever leaving the stage or sitting down once, and even those who stuck it out to the bitter end were showing very definite signs of fatigue.  By the end of the concert, it looked and sounded as if the singers were on automatic pilot, unable to do anything more than fall back on their intensive training to push them across the finish line.

The absence of any respite for the singers was doubly inexcusable since they had on stage with them an excellent organist – Magne Harry Draagen - who could easily have offered a couple of solos to take the pressure off the singers (as he had done at their last Singapore outing).  With the organ music of Norway’s own Egil Hovland hugely attractive but hardly ever heard in Singapore, this would have been a golden opportunity to do a little bit of national musical proselytizing.  On top of that Singapore’s own Sarah Wong was there with her harp to fill up the interval for those who did not make a headlong dash to the bar.  It was ridiculous to have such a talented player performing in the side-lines, when a harp solo or two embedded within the programme would not only have allowed more rest for the over-worked singers, but added a welcome new colour to the proceedings.

The first half of the programme was given over to 10 short pieces most of which, in one way or another, are natural territory for a cathedral choir, although spiced up by a particularly international flavour.  There were Norwegian items, all sung with an easy familiarity in both language and musical idioms; Norge, Mitt Norge by Alfred Paulsen, Nidelven Stille og Vakker du er by Chris Christensen, O Jesus Krist, jeg flyr til deg by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, and two new pieces by Henning Somerro, a setting of the Latin hymn Te Deum and the world premiere of Predicasti.  A couple of English-language settings were also included; Howard Goodall’s popular theme music for the TV series The Vicar of Dibley which is actually a setting of the 23rd Psalm, and a setting of psalm 141 by the Russian Pavel Chesnokov, in which the absence of a properly weighty and resonant bass line was keenly felt.  Avoiding kitsch by a hair’s breadth – saved by the choir’s unemotional style of delivery and Draagen’s dispassionate organ accompaniment – we had a potentially hideous amalgam of the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata with the Greek words from the Catholic Mass, Kyrie eleison, which text appeared in a far more worthy and inspired setting by Louis Vierne.  For my money, this extract from Vierne’s spectacular Messe Solennelle was the real high point of the first half, and while Draagen did a wonderful job of the sturdy organ accompaniment, how I wished I had been able to join him and present the work as it is supposed to be heard, accompanied by two separate organs spatially detached.  The other French work in the first half, Fauré’s popular Cantique de Jean Racine raced by with little sense of character or colour.  Indeed, the overriding feeling from the first half was that, while the choir is highly capable and makes a fine sound, it lacks the range of colours, tones and expressiveness we would expect in a concert setting; this sort of sound is fine in a liturgical context, but concert audiences need to have a little more to go on in order for the music to speak fully to them.

The choir had come on to the stage singing wordlessly and segued smoothly into the opening Predicasti.  This seemed to catch the audience by surprise, and when it was all over they sat in stunned silence, unsure whether it was polite to applaud in the middle of a concert of church music.  One can understand why Moe turned round and goaded everyone to clap (albeit somewhat embarrassedly) but he inadvertently was digging a grave for himself and his musicians.  Having been goaded to applause, the audience thereafter took anything which vaguely resembled silence as a cue for sustained applause. Thus, every time the music stopped for a breath or, even, subsided to something very quiet, up rose a wave of applause which after a time became intensely irritating.  What is wrong with Singapore audiences that they seem unable to listen intelligently to music? I am all in favour of spontaneous applause – I’m head of the queue when it comes to applauding between movements of symphonies and concertos - but if audiences would only make the effort to listen to music rather than merely let it wash past the ears, it’s pretty obvious when it has come to an end and when it is merely taking a breath.  A simple glance at the stage will also show whether the conductor is poised to go on, whether the violinists have their bows ready for the next note and whether the singers have drawn their preliminary breaths.  Here was a concert largely ruined by the ignorance and stupidity of an audience intent on causing maximum disruption for fearing of appearing to look uninterested. 

It was in the second half of the concert that audience intervention was at its most destructive, with every section of the Dvořák Mass in D interrupted by unwonted applause.  It disturbed the performers on stage to the extent that there were a couple of false starts and quite a lot of confusion, and it added a full five minutes at least to the playing time.  Whether it was also the cause of a certain listlessness which impinged on to the choir as the work progressed, I cannot tell, but certainly the Mass seemed to fade away after a very encouraging start.

Dvořák’s Mass in D is a woefully underperformed work.  Perhaps that’s because it is, at heart, an intimate and sincere work which does not easily lend itself to a concert setting.  He wrote it in 1887 for the dedication of the chapel at a friend’s ancestral home, and in the original performance the friend’s wife took one of the solo parts while Dvořák himself played the organ.  In 1892, during the white heat of Dvořák-mania in the UK, Novello’s commissioned him to bulk the Mass up with four solo voices, a larger choir and a full orchestra.  This is what we heard in this concert, and in the more intimate sections – notably the opening of the Kyrie - the sound was truly lovely.  The choral tone was well balanced, the diction exquisite and Moe’s shaping of the melodic phrases beautifully moulded.  Supporting the choir were members of the re:Sound chamber orchestra, and while they offered sensitive and alert response, the horns and trombones always merging into the texture with unerring acuity, I am not sure that communication with the conductor was always clear, leading to a little confusion at one point and a tendency for dynamics to be violently contrasted rather than subtly nuanced.

Unfailingly impressive, however, was the team of soloists.  As one Singaporean audience-member observed on the way out, “Felicia Two really held her own”, referring to the one Singaporean singer in the line-up.  Teo certainly did impress with the strength of her delivery and laser-sharp accuracy in the soprano solos, and she blended in well for the ensemble numbers. She rightly stood proudly alongside a team of really top-flight Scandinavian soloists.  Contralto Désirée Baraula had a lovely warmth and lyricism, while Thomas Ruud proved, as ever, to be a robust and intensely musical presence.  Anchoring the quartet with a rich, resonant and wonderfully characterful bass voice was the towering presence of Magne Frennerlid.

Whether it was general tiredness or audience intervention, the Dvořák was, for all its many good points, a bit of a disappointment.  However, the day was saved by two encores, attractive arrangements of songs in English and Chinese, the latter of which in particular helped boost the applause to music ration to somewhere approaching 50:50.