A night when darkness passed into light

The combined choirs of the Singapore Symphony Chorus, the Singapore Symphony Youth Choir and the Choir of the Filarmonica de Stat Transilvania perform with the SSO in Brahms' Song of Destiny and Song of the Fates.
The combined choirs of the Singapore Symphony Chorus, the Singapore Symphony Youth Choir and the Choir of the Filarmonica de Stat Transilvania perform with the SSO in Brahms' Song of Destiny and Song of the Fates. PHOTO: FACEBOOK / SINGAPORE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA

REVIEW / CONCERT

SONG OF DESTINY. BRAHMS SYMPHONIES

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Friday

This was the programme that the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under music director Shui Lan was to play in its first concert in Kuala Lumpur's Dewan Filharmonik Petronas after a hiatus of 17 years.

It began with the world premiere of Meditation, a short work by the prodigious pianist-composer Tengku Irfan, 19, once hailed in these pages as the Malaysian Mozart.

Originally a piano piece, its orchestration relived the lush atonality of Second Viennese School composer Alban Berg. Before any discernible development could take place, it ended as quietly as it began. That served as a teaser for two choral works by Johannes Brahms, Gesang Der Parzen (Song Of The Fates) and Schicksalslied (Song Of Destiny), performed by a combined choir comprising the Singapore Symphony Chorus, Singapore Symphony Youth Choir and Choir of the Transylvanian State Philharmonic, Cluj-Napoca.

Those familiar with A German Requiem will recognise Brahms' musical idiom. However, the words here do not offer succour, but instead cynicism and bitterness in the writings of Goethe and Holderlin respectively. Heavenly hosts conspire against mortals and the gods are indifferent to earthly matters. Its anti-theist message was as clear as the diction and enunciation of the 110-strong mass of voices.

While Gesang Der Parzen coloured its eternal struggle and despair in tragic and sombre tones, Schicksalslied did offer a mere measure of solace in its C major close.

These contrasts were keenly brought out by the choir, under the wing of new choral director Eudenice Palaruan. The accompanying orchestra played with discreetness and transparency throughout.

After the spare and grim choral works of the first half, Brahms' Second Symphony, played after the interval, shone like many rays of sunshine. This was the concluding chapter of the orchestra's Brahms symphony cycle under Shui and, in many ways, its most optimistic.

Unlike his view of Beethoven symphonies, which tended to be on the brisk side, Shui adopted more expansive tempos for this Brahms symphony.

Lilting strings were a pleasure in the first movement's second theme, the one that recalled Brahms' Wiegenlied (Cradle Song). Textures were kept on the light side and even the serious slow movement could afford a smile in its longeurs.

Principal French horn Han Chang Chou's solos were immaculately phrased and woodwinds stood out in the chirpy narrative of the third movement.

If one longed for a more pressing approach, that eventually came in the finale. If pure joy could be expressed, it could not have been better captured, as the concert passed from darkness to light.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2017, with the headline 'A night when darkness passed into light'. Print Edition | Subscribe