Concert Review, Life, Music
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A Passionate Passion: A review of Bach’s St John Passion conducted by Lim Yau

4 April 2014 (Fri)
Esplanade Concert Hall
Performing Home of the SSO

LIM YAU conductor
STEVE DAVISLIM tenor (Evangelist & arias)
MARTIN SNELL baritone (Pilate & arias)
JAN-HENDRIK ROOTERING bass-baritone (Christus)
NADINE LEHNER soprano (Maid)
LUCIA CERVONI mezzo-soprano
TEO ENG SIANG# bass (Peter)


*member of NAFA Chamber Choir
#member of Singapore Symphony Chorus

St John Passion, BWV.245 2hrs

It has been several years since I last attended a ‘Historically Informed Performance’ (HIP) in Singapore and I was intrigued to see a chamber-sized string orchestra with theorbo (belonging to the lute family), viola da gambas (modern cello’s ancestor), organ and harpsichord with a near 100-strong chorus onstage during the recent Gala St John Passion Concert conducted by Lim Yau.

I am sure somewhere, some (stuffy old) musicologist-purist, while acknowledging stylistically performed ornaments and melodic embellishments might have scoffed at this recent rendition of J.S. Bach’s St John Passion! Indeed, Bach had to score for smaller musical forces due to the small size of the Thomaskirche (Thomas Church)… or that a ‘proper’ HIP should have gone all the way with an ensemble made up of entirely period instruments (scholarly researched, reconstructed instruments of the past, with curved bows and viols, transverse flutes) or usage of Baroque tuning etc.etc.etc.

Frankly, who cares?

There was clear musical foreground and well-maintained balance between voices throughout, extending not just to chorus-orchestral relationships but also within chorus parts itself – obvious care was taken in bringing out the inner workings of Bach’s counterpoint, with alto and tenor lines given due respect when interesting music material was to be found in the chorales. Likewise, fugal subjects and answers were always given its proper prominence before retreating into countersubjects in No. 21 “Wir haben ein Gesetz” (We have a law).

At all times, the story-telling (in German) of the Passion of Christ was communicated with the clearest of diction from the well-prepared chorus and aided by a light, transparent clarity of playing from the orchestra – kudos to a disciplined orchestra willing to play closer to the fingerboard under Lim’s masterful direction. The chorus was top-notch, with excellent vocal production and diction, clean entries and musically well-prepared for even the most sudden of entrances of Kreuziges (crucify!) after long recitatives and arias, sounding as a single unit despite being around 100-strong. Surtitles were timely and helped non-native German speakers.

Lim’s uncanny ability in drawing out a rainbow of tone colours made every second of the nearly 2-hour concert interesting. The theorbo and viola da gamba brought a great deal of charm to the performance and shone especially in the recitatives and solo arias… perhaps a worthy and forgivable trade-off for the occasional incidents of intonation lapses in the viola da gamba during orchestral tutti. Period instruments while being in possession of rather charming tone colours do unfortunately suffer from chronic intonation or projection problems that was fixed with technological advancements leading to modern day instruments. Kudos especially to the viola da gamba musicians if they were having to relearn how to play at short notice, or specially for this concert.

The demanding role of the Evangelist was sung by Steve Davislim who was visibly engaging the audience in the storytelling. He is in possession of a beautiful tone that was slightly stretched in the higher tessitura though one can imagine his voice to be flawless in a lowered Baroque tuning. Although all of the soloists were musically reliable, it was Baritone Martin Snell who as Pilate, was vocally and musically the most attractive, with the “Betrachte meine seele” being the highlight of the evening’s solos. Kudos to the beautiful two solo violin and viola da gamba that accompanied him in this aria. Another musical gem was the dramatic silence after “und neiget das Haupt und verschied” (And he bowed his head and gave up the Spirit). Lim demonstrates a clear understanding of this emotional text, showing off Bach’s oratorio with an almost operatic flourish.

The concert though was not without some curious musical moments. Shane Thio was at his usual best and alternates between the organ and harpsichord effectively, although I am personally curious as to the musical/scholarly reasons behind such alternation of keyboard in the music. The chorus was also made to sing a cappella (unaccompanied) in No. 11 “Wer hat dich so geschlagen” (Who has struck you so) on the repeat (either that or the orchestra was so muted as to be inaudible). Perhaps such mysteries can only be solved by asking the conductor himself.

If we accept the philosophy that music of yesteryears should continue to ‘speak’ to the people of today, then Maestro Lim Yau has certainly gotten the right balance between doing just that and providing a scholarly offering that is HIP… the proportion of choristers-orchestral musicians employed was certainly ‘correct’ and the augmented numbers, justified, for the massive 1800-capacity Esplanade Concert Hall that was mostly full.

In a time of commercialism where the title of ‘maestro’ is thrown around cheaply, I am very happy to say we have the real deal right here, a Singaporean befitting of the title, bringing to life Bach’s magnum opus and inspiring young children and musicians in the audience (and chorus) who stayed rapt in attention to the 2 hours of passionate music-making! Special kudos to Maestro Lim Yau and the outstanding ensemble of musicians from the SSO and combined chorus!

Composer-conductor Albert Tay spent over a week studying, rehearsing and conducting the Johannespassion under the tutelage of Maestro Helmut Rilling at a Bach Masterclass-Festival some years ago. He has never had the desire to write reviews on his blog but was sufficiently inspired to do so in the hope that more fellow Singaporeans will hear of how we have world-class musicians doing top-notch work and are just as worthy of one’s ticket money and time as any other famous orchestra or maestri that are brought in from elsewhere.

1 Comment

  1. indeed i was a very good performance. In spite of modern instruments used it was still silvery in tone. i loved the light vibrato used although i felt the mezosoprano sang her part with too much vibrato. I wished Shane Thio just focused on the harpsichord and the assemble to have a separate organist. Many organ and harpsichord lines were missed during that performance. .Indeed the viola de gambas and theobo added an excellent charm during that Gala evening.

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