United Kingdom Schumann, Chee Yean Wong and Finzi: Chi Hoe Mak (bass-baritone), Samuel Tan (piano), Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham, 27.1.2015 (GR).
Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe Op 48
Chee Yean Wong: Three Songs (UK Premiere) – In the forest/When we two parted/We two boys together clinging
Gerald Finzi: Four Songs – Channel Firing/Rollicum-Rorum/To Lisbie Browne/Proud Songsters.
The Tuesday lunchtime series of concerts designated Performance Platform is promoted by the Birmingham Conservatoire and predominantly features their own past and present students. The standard of both artists and repertoire maintains a high quality and the recital on 27th Jan 2015 was no exception and much appreciated by a healthily-filled Adrian Boult Hall. The soloist was bass-baritone Chi Hoe Mak with piano accompaniment from Samuel Tan.
Malaysian Chi Hoe has done much to promote contemporary music from his homeland and is currently touring the role of King Narai in the opera Princess Saadong by Tazui Tajuddin. Here at ABH the former student of Birmingham Conservatoire presented the UK premiere of three songs from fellow countryman Chee Yean Wong. Each has been composed from texts of impeccable provenance, notably Oscar Wilde, Lord Byron and Walt Whitman. Wilde’s contribution was In the Forest with Chee Yean capturing the uncertainties of the poet’s ‘Shadow or song’: the darkness embodied by Chi Hoe’s ‘mid-wood’s twilight’ contrasted with the brilliance of Tan’s fluidic upper register prancing of the Faun. I would have welcomed more of this item, but we could only surmise as to the fate of hunter and prey. There were no doubts as to the outcome of the second Chee Yean contribution When we two parted, such was the Byronesque quality of Chi Hoe’s delivery, destined to close inevitably ‘with silence and tears’. These tears turned to laughter with the adaption of Walt Whitman’s We two boys together, the third Chee Yean number, Chi Hoe encapsulating the spirit of the song.
Chi Hoe had opened his programme with Schumann’s Dichterliebe (The Poet’s Love) a work inspired by the verses of Heinrich Heine, a text much in sympathy with the innermost feelings of the composer and his pursuit of his beloved Clara. Singer and accompanist had struck an immediate rapport, but while Chi Hoe’s interpretation of the sixteen parts showed variation and an ability to communicate to his audience, I wondered if the cycle was a little too demanding. I was highly impressed by Samuel Tan: he caught the dreaminess of Im wunderschönen Monat Mai with some impressive rubato, a mood of uncertainty he carried forth into Aus meinen Tränen Sprießen. Both soloists coped well with the extreme tempo of Die Rose, die Lilie, including delightful delicacy from Tan. While the gravitas of Im Rhein came across, I found Ich grolle nicht somewhat understated. Tan’s rhythmic playing was a highlight of Song 9 while the melancholy of both artists in the following Hör’ich ich das Liedchen klingen certainly held the audience. Ein Jüngling was appropriately merry, but Schumann’s return to sadness in Am leuchtenden is predictable, a mood that continued with the tears of Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet – Chi Hoe and Tan bringing out the drama of the moment. There was a forcefulness and resolve from Chi Hoe in the final Die alten, bösen Lieder during which the words explain why the coffin needs to be so big and heavy; Tan’s final phrases said it all.
Performance-wise I thought the most successful part of this midday recital was the four songs of Finzi; Chi Hoe seemed more relaxed and at one with the score. Channel Firing (to words of Thomas Hardy) was passionate and there was an element of ‘Judgement Day’ in the opening strains before Hardy’s animals added to the tension. The chill of ‘Red war yet redder’ was there in voice and piano, while pondering on the sanity of the world produced a touching moment. More Finzi settings of Hardy followed with three songs from the ‘Earth and Air and Rain’ collection. Rollicum-Rorum was fun on and off the stage and painted images of Merrie Olde England. To Lisbie Browne told of a lost love, as the poet learns he should have been bolder to win his sweetheart, although Finzi’s setting is full of hope, an emotion conveyed on this occasion. Proud Songsters exemplified the lightness of Hardy’s poems drawing parallels between the birds and the passing of time, a sensation emphasised in Finzi’s music and the poignancy of Chi Hoe and Tan. A great finish!