Rare treat of sensuous singing

REVIEW / CONCERT

VCH CHAMBER SERIES - GRIEG'S HOLBERG SUITE

Angela Hodgins (mezzo-soprano) and members of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall/Last Sunday

Duets for violin and harp are extremely rare, and Saint-Saens' Fantaisie is the only one with a foothold in the repertory. It is a finely written piece full of elegance and beauty, but here we saw why this instrumental pairing never caught on. Violinist Igor Yuzefovich, with his fulsome tone and rhythmic incisiveness, too often overwhelmed the floating elegance of Gulnara Mashurova's harp. While this was a performance high on technical self-assurance and musical confidence, it was rather low on balance and subtlety.

Those features and a whole lot more were very much in evidence in what came next.

Even rarer than duets for violin and harp, Alberto Ginastera's Cantos del Tucuman is scored for the unique combination of mezzosoprano, violin, flute, harp and South-American cajas (conically- shaped, bright red drums sounding a bit like resonant tabla).

But these songs are rarely performed for reasons other than their unusual instrumental demands, They are extremely difficult and singers who are able to sing them well are few and far between.

Luckily, American-born Singaporean resident Angela Hodgins can. Her astounding performance of the four songs captured their elusive qualities of sensuousness, sultriness and mischievousness. She effortlessly articulated their complex rhythms - not least in the third, where the vocal line appeared to be on a totally different metrical wavelength to Mark Suter's poised drumming - and floated through it with an eloquent tone, a captivating purity and precision. It was by far the high point of the concert. Moments of instrumental magic were provided by Evgueni Brokmiller's delicate flute.

If the first half of the concert had exuded a rarefied air of refined exoticism, the second half plunged the audience into a world of robust and earthy string playing.

With the standing strings of the SSO in their rainbow attire crowding the stage, Edward Elgar's Serenade For Strings In E Minor must have been a moment of pure joy for those who love big, bold and booming string sound, especially underpinned by an almost earthshaking bass presence. Lovers of Elgar's melodic and expressive qualities would probably have been less ecstatic.

Edvard Grieg's Holberg Suite deliberately sets out to invoke the character of early 18th-century music. Its six movements all start as pastiches of Baroque dances but quickly descend - or ascend, depending on your point of view - into the realms of Norwegian folk dance.

It was the latter aspect which this performance most powerfully highlighted, the dances often so rhythmically driven that Grieg's artful melodies were rather pushed aside.

However, apart from a Sarabande that sounded more like a frantic run for the bus than a stately court dance, the vigour and energy of the performance provided a tremendously upbeat ending to this concert.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Rare treat of sensuous singing'. Print Edition | Subscribe