Bach to the baroque

Not content with just playing the music, enthusiasts want pieces to sound just as they did in the composers' day

One sultry Sunday afternoon earlier this month, the strains of Johann Ludwig Bach's mid-18th century sacred motet Das Ist Meine Freude could be heard wafting down the corridor of a block of HDB flats in Fernvale Road in Sengkang.

In the cosy living room of 31-year-old French music teacher Laura Abello's house, a group of musicians were accompanying eight singers, who were rehearsing for a free baroque music recital that they would later perform at the Library@Esplanade to a hundred- strong crowd.

The musicians were not just any classical music practitioners. They were among a niche group in Singapore with a special interest in early music, which generally refers to repertoire from the mediaeval, Renaissance and baroque periods.

The group which played that day included viol players, a pianist, flautist and lutenist.

Among them was Singaporean violinist Paul Goh.

"I fell in love with the purity and raw energy of period practice," said the 41-year-old, who was first introduced to early music when he was studying at Chinese High School.

PASSIONATE

I fell in love with the purity and raw energy of period practice.

MR PAUL GOH, a violinist, on his love for early music.


AUTHENTIC

These instruments are built on historical principles. My baroque guitar... sounds radically different from its modern descendants.

MR EDWARD YONG, who plays the lute, on how instruments from the 1600s-1700s differ from modern ones.

Mr Goh, who later taught music and physics at Hwa Chong Institution, and led the school's string orchestra to a gold award at the Singapore Youth Festival in 2003, now combines his love for music and craftsmanship by making bows for string instruments at his shop in Beauty World Plaza.

The small group of early-music practitioners here are typically trained in the Western classical style. But their love for the genre does not stop with the repertoire. They take it further by playing on instruments that are replicas of those used hundreds of years ago, tuned in the pitch of that particular era.

"The early-music scene is so small, it attracts mainly hobbyists", said language teacher Edward Yong, 34, who plays the lute, a plucked string instrument.

"Most professional musicians focus on later music, and do early music on the side," he added.

Mr Yong is part of Cappella Martialis, a local group formed in 2011 with a special interest in early music.

With many early-music instruments now housed in museums or lost to history, enthusiasts have to make do with accurate copies.

"These instruments are built on historical principles," said Mr Yong.

"My baroque guitar, which is the 1600s-1700s form of the modern classical guitar, sounds radically different from its modern descendants. Effects that composers intended for it are impossible to reproduce on a modern instrument."

It is also a challenge to own an early-music instrument in Singapore, said Associate Professor Geoffrey Benjamin, who has taught at the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University.

Humidity and pests are a constant threat to the wood used in these instruments.

Prof Benjamin is keenly interested in the early forms of recorders and flutes, of which he has a large collection.

"These require a special effort to play well, with regard to the technique and knowledge of the appropriate style," he said.

"A G-sharp is not the same note as A-flat, needing to be fingered and blown differently," he said, referring to the historic tuning of these instruments.

He added: "Sometimes, you need to struggle a little to realise just how excellent the music is."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline 'Bach to the baroque'. Print Edition | Subscribe