Are some people so curious about death, because they have not yet died? Many composers have been fascinated with death and things associated with it, and it is probably the most written-about subject in music, probably ranking second after love. Death may be morbid, but some composers personified death as a peaceful, welcoming rest after a hard life.
It is with this aim of presenting the many facets of death that Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts alumni, soprano Cheryl Lee Peixin and pianist Wong Yun Qi programmed this recital, Could This Be Death?, which was presented by the Young Musicians' Society at the Esplanade Recital Studio on Friday, as part of their ongoing After Eight concert series.
With the opening "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone/Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone" of Britten's Funeral Blues, Lee showcased her alluring, dark-hued lower range and worked her way up towards a belting fortissimo at the end. Also sung in English was Barber's Op. 10 which opened the second half of the recital. Lee deftly changed from one emotion to another within the song, without losing the rich tone of her voice, and accompanied as admirably by Wong.
The duo offered a selection of lieder by Schubert and Strauss in the first half. Lee brought out the frantic, panicking character of the maiden and contrasted it with the placid character of death in Schubert's Der Tod und das Mädchen. In Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, Wong skilfully painted the murmuring of the raging sea, exercising excellent control and never overpowering Lee. The extent and enormity of loss was shown in a simple yet heart-rending account of Strauss' Allerseelen, and it was paired with the highly emotional Befreit.
Singaporean composer Americ Goh's two works of the same title, Little Deaths (Concert Versions 1.1 and 2.0) stuck out like sore thumbs amidst the repertoire of eighteenth to early nineteenth century works. Written for solo voice, it was a cacophony of jumbled up vocalisations: hisses, swoops, random pitches and exaggeratedly enunciated text (this reviewer could make out the words "oh my god, yes" and "no") without programme notes or an explanation, it did not seem to make sense musically or conceptually. Lee performed these pieces with theatrical flair.
Wong took centrestage to perform the evocative El Corpus in Sevilla from Albeniz's suite Iberia, where the Spanish folk tune La Tarara is presented firstly as a jaunty procession then in different forms, and in between episodes of a mournful flamenco. Occasional snatches of too much pedal blurred some of the passages, but she effectively captured the languor of the Spanish atmosphere.
Showing no signs of tiring, the duo definitely saved the best for the last, ending off with Wagner's Liebestod from the opera Tristan und Isolde, but not before performing two of Mahler's lieder. All three written originally with orchestral accompaniment. Wong's sensitive accompaniment was always complementary and supportive, musically highlighting the intricate orchestral textures.
Throughout the concert, Lee transitioned beautifully between the upper and lower registers of her voice, delivering powerfully glistening high notes over the piano, which was kept at full-lid. An encore, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot chased away any morbid thoughts of the programme anyone might have had and was a reminder to the fantastic musicianship displayed in the concert.