Concert review: Philharmonic Chamber Choir inspired in performance of tricky Rachmaninov work

The presence of Julian Gregory not only gave real impact and soul to the tenor solos, but embedded within the choir, he provided backbone and strength to the tenor line.
The presence of Julian Gregory not only gave real impact and soul to the tenor solos, but embedded within the choir, he provided backbone and strength to the tenor line. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/PHILHARMONIC CHAMBER CHOIR

All-Night Vigil

The Philharmonic Chamber Choir/Lim Yau (conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall

Friday (31 August)

Either it was an act of extraordinary bravery or of total madness for the Philharmonic Chamber Choir to attempt Rachmaninov's monumental All-Night Vigil.

Unlike his concert music, where the universality of simple human emotions allows it to speak freely to people of different musical backgrounds, races and creeds, Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil is a profoundly personal statement of his Orthodox faith.

To treat this music merely as a kind of emotionally-charged vocal version of the Second Piano Concerto, is to miss its entire reason for existence. Many of the world's finest choirs have fallen into that trap and come to grief over this complex, unaccompanied hour-long work in the recording studio, and few have successfully translated what is essentially liturgical music into a concert hall setting.

But Lim Yau is always up for a challenge, and for this - possibly the first complete performance of the work in Singapore - he had a few tricks up his sleeve in the guise of some hand-picked extra voices.

The presence of Julian Gregory not only gave real impact and soul to the tenor solos, but embedded within the choir, he provided backbone and strength to the tenor line.

Not that the tenors of the Philharmonic Chamber Choir really needed any extra backbone. This is a choir with more than its fair share of outstanding voices, and one of these was the other soloist Sonoko Mizukami.

Her rich, fruity contralto may not have had the focused pitch or effortless projection of Gregory's tenor, but it suited the music very well.

Lim's greatest coup, though, was not in enticing Gregory away from his usual singing territory - he is a member of the Kings' Singers - but in importing two larger than life, authentic bassi profundi from Russia.

Radik Gasimov and Fedor Tarasov possess that uniquely resonant deep register which is so utterly redolent of Russian church choirs that it is inconceivable to imagine this music without it.

Not only did they give strong, physical substance to Rachmaninov's impossibly low B flats, but they anchored the entire choir through the solidity, firmness and astonishing sensitivity of their singing.

Lim did not impose extra layers of emotion on to the performance, wisely allowing the inherent beauty of the music to seep out, as it were, without fuss. The choral singing was unfailingly beautiful and flawlessly balanced.

If there was a fault, it was with the choir's tendency to respond a little too eagerly to Lim's subtle dynamic shading, resulting in rather too many extreme climatic peaks and troughs. Occasionally, he also drove his singers along with an almost mechanical rhythmic precision, lending a vaguely militaristic atmosphere to some of the faster sections.

These tiny imperfections aside, this performance was neither an act of bravery nor one of madness, but something truly inspired.