After three evenings of performing Beethoven's Choral Symphony with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the BBC Singers gave an a cappella recital of its own on Sunday afternoon at Victoria Concert Hall, conducted by its principal guest conductor Paul Brough.
The only professional non-operatic choir in the United Kingdom and one of the great chamber choirs of the world celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. The 24-member ensemble offered a 70-minute-long programme of contemporary British choral music, likened by Brough to "a box of fine chocolates".
Like afternoon tea with scones, the British choral tradition is a venerated institution but one which has actively kept up with the times. The notion of polyphony in choral music was not just limited to harmonies alone but now involved new compositional techniques and vocal devices.
Gabriel Jackson's The Voice Of The Bard opened the concert, with a long fanfare on the word "Hear", of the first sentence "Hear the voice of the Bard", from William Blake's Songs Of Experience.
The expanse of the hall was soon filled with a plethora of voices that reflected the sheer dynamic range of the piece, which continued into Judith Weir's Vertue, written in three sections. The clarity of pronunciation and enunciation was such that it was easy to follow the words, even through dense polyphonic textures.
Many of the works would not be familiar to non-choristers; John Tavener's Song For Athene might be the exception. The drone provided by the basses was redolent of Greek Orthodox Church music over which an ethereal Alleluia wafted above the throng. This was written in memory of a young Greek friend who had died in a road accident, and was most famously sung at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997.
Folk songs occupy a large part of choral music, and these were well represented here. Cedric Davie's settings of The Three Ravens and We Be Three Poor Marriners were sung by the twelve men, while the women made their mark on Granville Bantock's arrangements of Ye Banks An' Braes and Highland Laddie. Both sets were characterised by rich harmonisations that added a further dimension to mere words.
This listener's ears were piqued by the wonderful symmetry offered in the pairing of Judith Bingham's The Drowned Lovers and Charles Stanford's The Blue Bird, which were sung without a break. The word "blue" became a common reference in both songs, water in the former aligned with sky of the latter. The alto solo in the Bingham exuded an operatic intensity, contrasted with the soaring soprano solo in the Stanford.
Ever more piquant was Edward Cowie's Lyre Bird Motet, which used extramusical vocalisations to quite startling effect. A low drone evoked the Australian outback, over which women's voices simulated the song of the fabled lyre bird, with onomatopoeic sounds, whistles, shouts and wordless issues adding to a rich mosaic of sound.
James MacMillan's The Gallant Weaver, with words by Robert Burns, was a perfect modern setting for a love song. Its rustic charm was all embracing, with women's voices ornamenting the chant of a young girl in love with the village weaver.
Concluding the concert was a great classic, Benjamin Britten's Hymn To Saint Cecilia, premiered by the BBC Singers in 1942. The patron saint of musicians is hailed in its three sections, a common refrain separating some of the finest and most responsive ensemble and solo singing to be heard here. The encore offered by the choir was no less interesting, Richard Rodney Bennett's calming Good Night. A truly classy way to take one's leave.