Concert review: Stunning, ethereal voices of the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge

Within the short space of 10 days, Singapore audiences were treated to yet another world class choir from the United Kingdom. Following hot on the heels of the BBC Singers was the Choir of St John's College, Cambridge, formed by 31 young men, 16 of whom are trebles or boy sopranos. Led by its director of music Andrew Nethsingha, the choir performed an eclectic programme that spanned almost three centuries of choral repertoire on Tuesday at Esplanade Concert Hall.

The concert began with the observance of a minute of silence in memory of Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who was also the nation's most illustrious University of Cambridge alumnus.

Mozart's popular Ave Verum Corpus then brought out the richness of voices for which this choir is justly celebrated. The sheer homogeneity of sound, with none of the disparity of voices standing between men and boys, was impressive and a balm to the ears. This continued without a break into Rossini's O Salutaris Hostia, sung a cappella, which rose to a dizzying and passionate climax.

Accompaniment for the songs was provided by two organ scholars, and this orchestra-like sonority added a further dimension to the exultant and joyous outbursts of Gloria In Excelsis Deo from Jonathan Dove's Missa Brevis. In addition to overcoming its tricky syncopations, this reading was distinguished by a very crisp articulation and delivery from all registers.

The organ scholars also shone in virtuosic solos of their own. Joseph Wicks was excellent in the fanfares and flourishes of Simon Preston's Alleluyas, contrasted with more traditional harmonies in Edward Picton-Tubervill's masterly account of J.S.Bach's monumental Prelude In E Flat Major (BWV 552/1).

The biggest cheers, however, went to 12-year-old treble Oliver Brown whose solo in Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer was a model of purity and pristine innocence. He took on this strenuous part with great confidence and aplomb, hitting each of the high notes unflinchingly and with perfect intonation. His humble and almost matter-of-fact demeanour in no way diminished his musical achievement.

Contemporary music figured high in this programme, most memorably Jonathan Harvey's I Love The Lord, which employed an offstage semi-chorus of three providing a polytonal counterpart to the larger body on stage. The aural effect of two groups singing in different keys was stunning, just like the extremes of vocal ranges used in Estonian Arvo Part's Magnificat, which had the trebles holding their own in tandem with the basses. The kind of balance achieved by Nethsingha and his charges was admirable.

The glorious English song tradition was represented by Vaughan Williams' O Taste And See, John Ireland's Greater Love Hath No Man and Herbert Howells' A Spotless Rose, and one will not hear more natural or heartfelt renditions than these. Instead of Handel's rousing anthem Zadok The Priest originally programmed to close, the choir opted for the more sober and sublime Song For Athene by John Tavener.

Sung at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997, its ethereal chants of Alleluia over a long held pedal-note drone from the basses was a fitting tribute to a great life that had come, gone and illuminated the world in between - that of Mr Lee.

With seriousness done and dusted, the choir brought out many smiles with an arrangement of Molihua, with pretty decent pronunciation and accents, no doubt aided by the two Chinese boys among the trebles. The jazzy strains of Rodgers and Hart's Blue Moon also showed a versatile side of this wonderful group, whose next visit here will be eagerly anticipated.

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