A remarkably pure voice

REVIEW / CONCERT

A COUNTERTENOR'S CONUNDRUM

Chan Wei En (countertenor) and Jonathan Shin (piano)

Arts House Chamber

Last Friday

Chan Wei En never did tell us what the countertenor's conundrum was nor why he chose it as the title of his recital.

Perhaps the conundrum is this - why does the most unnatural of singing voices sound so natural? Years of intense and strenuous training have brought Chan to the point where his voice sounds remarkably pure and his vocal delivery seems completely effortless.

Technically, there were a couple of tiny flaws in this wide-ranging programme. Ornaments, always stylistically intended, did not always come across with complete delicacy in the aria from Handel's opera Alcina and the extraordinarily athletic vocal runs in Gluck's Addio A Miei Sospiri had a slightly hard edge to them. But in every other respect, this was singing of the highest calibre, superbly poised and magnificently controlled.

Arias by Mozart, including a sumptuously affectionate An Chloe, showed immense style and poise, while Poulenc's set of five Banalites were delivered in impeccable French and with much interpretative wit and wisdom. As Chan leaned casually on the piano in the old parliament debating chamber, he clearly relished the delicious irony of singing the lines in the very room where Singapore's uncompromising laws on tobacco were passed and prime ministerial exhortations on the value of hard labour were uttered: "I don't want to work, I want to smoke".

If any of the current generation of Singaporean singers is to make waves on the international platform, I am convinced Chan will be the one. But without in any way denigrating the excellence of his performance, this recital would not have been the huge success it was without the sensitive and beautifully crafted accompaniments of Jonathan Shin. His sense of empathy with both song texts and singer was a work of art.

But there was even more to Shin than that. His own composition, a setting of five poems by Singapore's Gwee Li Sui, was probably the most compelling and worthwhile new work from any Singaporean composer in recent years. He mirrored Gwee's clever imagery, capturing the character of Singapore with intelligent and distinctive music.

Naturally enough, Shin tackled the virtuoso piano part with wonderful fluency, while Chan's delivery of the complex vocal lines was nothing less than brilliant.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'A remarkably pure voice'. Print Edition | Subscribe