Lutenist and tenor have perfect musical partnership



Jonas Nordberg (theorbo), Alan Bennett (tenor)

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall/Last Monday

The theorbo (or chitarrone) is that extremely long-necked type of lute - a bit like a highly advanced and complex bass guitar - which is usually found providing the bass line for Italian vocal music of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Unlike the bass guitar, however, it has quite a varied voice which, given the right player, can make for satisfying listening.

Swedish lutenist Jonas Nordberg is certainly the right player.

In this opening concert of a three-day event celebrating masters of Italian vocal music, he performed some rarely-heard solo pieces by the early 17th-century composer Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger.

Two toccatas showcased Nordberg's fleet-fingered hands as they floated unerringly over the theor-bo's more than a dozen strings.

A stately Passacaglia, delivered with wonderful poise, saw him achieve the remarkable feat of maintaining a rock-steady bass line with the thumb, while the remaining fingers described increasingly ornate decorations above.

This display of technical virtuosity was masked by Nordberg's intense artistry, which made it seem effortless.

The rest of the programme saw the theorbo in its more customary role as an accompanying instrument.

Here, it was accompanying the light and delicate tenor of Alan Bennett, whose exquisite diction (rendering superfluous the barely visible projected texts) and understated dramatic rhetoric gave a gloriously stylish edge to both D'India's Lamento d'Orfeo and Monteverdi's Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.

Nordberg and Bennett had the perfect musical partnership, conveying with complete conviction these highly dramatic texts.

The drama of the Monteverdi was given extra impact by effective minimalist staging and two singer/actors as the knife-wielding protagonists.

Considering the number of fatal blows they received during the piece's 20-minute duration, it was astonishing that Jing Jie Lim (Tancredi) remained in such commanding voice to the very end.

But more remarkable was soprano Shubhangi Das, who, as the unfortunate Clorinda, got herself killed somewhere about 15 minutes into the work, but was still in full, glorious voice even as she sung the closing lines from the grave. It might have been laughable had Das not been such a compelling vocal presence and persuasive stage presence.

With Bennett eloquently narrating the story and Nordberg giving an almost percussive edge to the frequent outbreaks of violent knife-crime, this was a powerful performance musically as well as visually.

Not just for its novelty value, but for the outstanding quality of the performances and the fact that this year marks the 380th anniversary of the first performance of the Monteverdi Combattimento, this was not to be missed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2018, with the headline 'Lutenist and tenor have perfect musical partnership'. Print Edition | Subscribe