Concert review: New Opera Singapore nails Brahms and the ups and downs of love

What would the art song scene in Singapore be without groups such as New Opera Singapore and the Sing Song Club? Much poorer. Although the listenership for lieder here is relatively small, the quality of performances is very encouraging, which is surely the first step towards audience-building.

Thursday evening's programme by New Opera Singapore at the Esplanade Recital Studio centred around German lovesongs performed by multiple voices and small ensembles. English translations were projected on a screen and that greatly enhanced the enjoyment of the songs.

The 10 movements of Robert Schumann's Spanish Liebeslieder Op.138, based on Spanish poems translated by Emmanuel Giebel, opened the short but intimate recital with duo pianists Kseniia Vokhmianina and Shane Thio playing the brief Vorspiel (Prelude). The sheer lyricism and sensitivity displayed immediately set the right tone for the evening.

This set comprised solos, duets and one song which involved all four singers. Soprano Jeong Ae Ree portrayed sorrow in Tief Im Herzen (Deep In My Heart), while tenor Shaun Lee was all ardency in O Wie Lieblich (O How Lovely), the subject being love at first sight of some maiden. The emotions and pangs of falling in and out of love are the stuff of the Romantics, so innocently but passionately captured in these songs.

A Schubertian lightness inhabited Flutenreicher Ebro (Surging Ebro River), which baritone Yun Seong Woo delivered with crispness and fluency. Mezzo-soprano Son Jung A's lovely Hoch, Hoch Sind Die Berg (High, High Is The Mountain) made a departure from G minor to E flat major, altering the colour and complexion of the cycle.

The duet for tenor and baritone Blaue Augen Hat Das Madchen (The Girl Has Blue Eyes) provided some light-hearted moments if only because "she does not fall for the men". The gentle tease became a declaration in the closing Dunkler Lichtglanz (Dark Light), sung by all four, that Love is the only state where "happiness is paid for with pain".

Johannes Brahms' Liebeslieder Waltzes Op.52 are far better known, the four vocal parts being often sung by mixed choirs. The four singers, with tenor Jonathan Charles Tay taking the place of Shaun Lee, also appeared more relaxed after the interval, as if spirits had been partaken. The music, taking on the Viennese waltz as the predominant impetus, was lighter and frothier.

The course of true love has its ups and downs, encapsulated in 18 poems from Georg Friedrich Daumer's Polydora, but how the waltz rhythm could be made to express tenderness, longing, angst and rage is down to Brahms' genius. Amid the busy but satisfying ensemble singing, there were only two solos: Jung in the melancholic Wohl Schon Bewandt (All Was Well) and Tay wistfully in Nicht Wandle (Do Not Wander). The last song Das Bebet Das Gestrauche (The Bushes Tremble) provided a subdued and unsettling end to the set. Infuriating as that may be, isn't that what love is all about?