Singapore Various composers, An Afternoon with the BBC Singers, BBC Singers, Paul Brough, conductor, Victoria Concert Hall Singapore, 15.03.2015 (RP)
Gabriel Jackson: The Voice of the Bard
Judith Weir: Vertue
John Tavener: Song for Athene
Arr. Thorpe Davie: Two English folksongs – The Three Ravens & We Be Three Poor Mariners
Judith Bingham: The Drowned Lovers
Charles Stanford: The Blue Bird
Edward Cowie: Lyre Bird Motet
Arr. Granville Bantock: Two Scottish folksongs – Ye Banks an’ Braes & Highland Laddie
James MacMillan: The Gallant Weaver
Benjamin Britten: Hymn to St. Cecilia, Op.27
The BBC Singers visited Singapore for the first time in their 90 year history. They joined forces with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus for three Beethoven Ninths and topped off their visit with a concert of British choral works. Paul Brough, who conducted the 24 singers in this concert, observed that the pieces being performed are a sampling of the best of British choral works from 20th century and the opening years of the present one. Judging from comments overheard from the audience, not everything was to everyone’s tastes, but there was indeed something for everyone in a program that ranged from English and Scottish folks songs, to choral classics such as Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia and contemporary works closely linked to, and in several cases composed specifically for the BBC Singers.
The emotional core of the program was Judith Bingham’s The Drowned Lovers followed without pause as she intended by Charles Stanford’s The Blue Bird. The popular Stanford part song tells of a blue bird soaring over a cold, still lake that catches a glimpse of its own reflection in the waters below. The soaring solo soprano lines were sung by the clear-voiced Emma Tring. Bingham, the BBC Singer’s Associate Conductor from 2006-2009, wrote both the text and the music for The Drowned Lovers that precede it. The short song depicts the tale of two doomed lovers who lie at the bottom of those cool blue waters, the music as taunt as the text. Alto Cherith Millburn-Fryer sang Bingham’s words with great feeling and rich tone above the chorus’ repetitive, somber drone. It was a very effect combination of the old and new.
John Tavener’s Song for Athene, commissioned by the BBC Singers, is well known to many as it was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. Combining texts from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the funeral rites of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it is a moving elegy that plumbs the depth of personal grief with the stillness and profundity of seemingly timeless yet modern sonorities. The fine basses provided the bedrock of this deeply moving performance.
The technical virtuosity of the singers was demonstrated in Edward Cowie’s Lyre Bird Suite first performed by the chorus in 2003. Inspired by three lyre birds singing at sunset, during the composer’s time in Australia, it was the most edgy musically of all of the works on the program. Fragments of text and music set the scene musically. Cowie notated the actual songs of three of the birds that he heard that evening, which the same number of soprano recreated in this vivid performance.
The BBC Singers premiered Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia in 1942. This performance was fresh and spontaneous, the choir vividly articulating W.H. Auden’s text with crisp, clear diction and the music with great expression. The basses once again were at their sonorous best in the third section and set the groundwork for the fine, if brief solos that followed. It was the overall lilt of the voices, at times seemingly suspended in midair that linger in the memory.
One encore was offered, Richard Rodger Bennett’s A Good-Night, written in memory of Linda McCarthy. Bennett was a musician of great versatility, his compositional style evolving from his youthful adventures in the 12 tone realm to a more popular, often jazz tinged vein as he matured. The BBC Singers ended the concert on a tender note with this moving musical elegy.
Are the BBC Singers the perfect choir? Of course not, there are surely more beautiful and yes fresher voices in many a choir, and the performance was not without a few instances of sagging pitch, but in terms of authoritative, committed, first-rate performances of British choral music, they are in a league of their own. It is Great Britain’s only fulltime professional choir (with the exception of the opera choruses) and its repertoire extends to music of every conceivable form and style. It is part of the living, breathing and still evolving British choral tradition that has few if any equals in the modern world. May they sing on for many a year to come.