Sheer loveliness of sound by choir an end in itself

REVIEW / CONCERT

FAIRE IS THE HEAVEN

St John's College Cambridge Chapel Choir, Glen Dempsey and James Anderson-Besant (organ), Andrew Nethsingha (conductor)

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday


Two hours of the kind of music heard on a daily basis in any English cathedral or collegiate church might seem a trifle niche for a Singapore concert-hall audience.

Yet this concert attracted a very large audience which remained enraptured throughout and who responded with a level of restraint rare on the Singapore concert scene.

The attraction here was not so much the music - although every one of these short anthems, motets, canticles and hymns was an unarguable masterpiece - as the choir itself.

For more than 500 years, St John's College Cambridge has had a choir of boys and men sing the daily services in its chapel.

Today's choir undertakes a punishing round of early morning rehearsals and evening services throughout the university term, but outside of term time, they can leave Cambridge and tour.

Singapore would seem to be one of its preferred destinations - it was last here in 2015 - and as conductor Andrew Nethsingha pointed out in his on-stage chats, the Republic is one of the most successful recruiting grounds it has outside Britain.

Beyond supplying the choir with singers and undergraduate students, Singapore also provided it with an attentive and appreciative audience and a concert hall organ which, with careful prodding, can produce the type of sound heard in an English cathedral.

The idiosyncrasies of the Esplanade's Klais organ did throw up quite a challenge for the two organ scholars, Glen Dempsey and James Anderson-Besant, but both tamed the beast sufficiently to offer credible solo performances of pieces by Widor and Howells.

Nethsingha has drilled his choir to a state where it produces, seemingly effortlessly, a beautifully rounded and smoothly blended tone with immaculate diction and flawless inner balance.

The downside of all this is that the sheer loveliness of the sound becomes an end in itself.

Whether singing the simple hymn Drop, Drop Slow Tears by 16th-century English composer Orlando Gibbons or the more challenging anthem Sing My Soul by contemporary American composer Ned Rorem, it all tended to sound the same.

In the unaccompanied cathedral repertory - notably William Harris' classic eight-part anthem Faire Is The Heaven - that loveliness of sound was precisely what the music needed and concertgoers would be hard-pressed to find better performances anywhere.

With the accompanied items, the dizzying array of colours conjured up by the organists complemented the choir to create a gloriously rich and varied effect - Gerald Finzi's stirring God Is Gone Up and Howells' mystical Gloucester Magnificat were particularly memorable here.

However, a movement from Rachmaninov's All Night Vespers seemed monochrome, while Parry's Blest Pair Of Sirens clearly needed more substantial and mature forces than this undeniably excellent choir of 17 boys and 16 young men.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2018, with the headline 'Sheer loveliness of sound by choir an end in itself'. Print Edition | Subscribe