Concert review: The Philharmonic Chamber Choir tackles Poulenc's Sept Chansons fearlessly

It has been 21 years since The Philharmonic Chamber Choir was formed. Its unyielding efforts in pushing the boundaries of creative programming have ensured that the choral music scene never stagnates. Its latest concert at Victoria Concert Hall on Sunday, Equinox: A Tale Of Night And Day, centres on the contrasting blend of the bleakness of night and the hope that daylight brings.

Swedish composer Ingvar Lidholm's De Profundis was a desperate plea for salvation, and the unnerving dissonances brought about layers of anguish that were heightened by simulated screaming and groaning.

From the yearning for salvation, the mood turned to the longing for love in Jean Sibelius' Rakastava, which alternates between hopeful anticipation and dreaded reality. Soprano Sun Yi Wen's effortless projection, with her high registers soaring beautifully, and William Lim's powerful bass solo told the tale of the un-named lover's pining for his beloved Ella.

There were moments of wavering intonation and timbre in Ildebrando Pizzetti's impressionistic work Due Composizioni Corali, but the choir duly attoned with a vivid array of colours, taking the listener through the lush and evocative enchanted garden.

Under conductor Lim Yau's no-nonsense direction, the choir were at its faultless best in Gyorgy Ligeti's Ejszaka And Reggel. The intense crescendo built up by the repeated phrase "Rengeteg tovis" sang in chord clusters brought one to the each of his seat as it reached its pentatonic climax. Hypnotic rhythms gave way to polyphony in Reggel, as Ligeti extended on his use of pentatonicism. With soprano and bass solos mimicking the rooster with cries of "ki-ke-ri-ki", the harmonic and rhythmic discipline of the choir was on full display.

O Sacrum Convivium! by Olivier Messiaen perhaps sums up the intriguing compositional style of the French composer, with his devout Roman Catholic faith and imaginative ways of conjuring ecstasy and sensuous harmonies at the forefront. It was the tenor section's turn to shine, with a sonorous showing lending a palpably physical component to the spiritual text.

No choral concert is ever complete without the works of Francis Poulenc, and his Un Soir de Neige and Sept Chansons showed his mastery at crafting melodies.  Each of the four songs of Un soir de neige gets straight to the heart of the matter, which in this instance is a heavily flecked winter journey of despair.

His motet Sept Chansons uses a deliberately archaic form to communicate a mixture of spirituality and strong individual emotion, which the choir delivered with enthusiastic fervour. By now fully warmed to the task, the performers tackled the work's many fearless challenges in tuning and register with ease, and the full range of their dynamic capabilities resonated through the hall. The acute sensitivity they showed to Poulenc's word setting showed their innate understanding of the power of the simplest harmonic effects.

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