This post is dedicated to Geok Choo, for without whom I wouldn’t have attended this concert; and Jeff, who would probably have liked to attend this concert if he was in Singapore.
“Ich werde euch einen Zyklus schauerlicher Lieder vorsingen. Ich bin begierig zu sehen, was ihr dazu sagt. Sie haben mich mehr angegriffen, als dies bei anderen der Fall war. Mir gefallen diese Lieder mehr als alle, und sie werden euch auch noch gefallen.”
Winterreise – by Eng Meng Chia (baritone) and Shane Thio (piano)
13 October 2009, Tuesday, 8.01pm, Esplanade Recital Studio
Winterreise, like the Cello Concerto by Elgar or any major work of music, is not to be taken lightly. It is the type of work which can only be classified as either good or bad, with no such thing as a mediocre performance.
Last week’s performance was my first time watching it live, and it was one of the better performances of Winterreise (I’ve heard quite a number of them) that I’ve heard. With the first few bars of “Gute Nacht”, Eng had the audience gripped. He does not merely perform the songs. Instead of showing theatrically, he had us experience “was uns in inner tiefsten bewegt”. Emotions felt by the audience were of the starkest kind, so primitive and poignant. Thio was no less remarkable, with his caresses he brought out the piano part as though it was in itself another complementary voice. It is no wonder then, that Thio had won the accompanist award in the Tankard Lieder Competition while studying on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The duo complemented each other perfectly, as if bound together by a magical force. Thio could anticipate almost every nuance by Eng, and if he did not, his instincts were always spot-on.
The mood was set so well; even from the start Eng brought out all the contrasts in just the right tone. In “Gute Nacht”, for example, “Was soll ich länger weilen” was suitably loud, wheras “Will dich im Traum nicht stören” was so quietly sung that one felt the audience leaning forward. Overall, the interpretation was not that of the usual angry, stoical journey, but an elegaic, poetic, heartbreaking forlorn and deeply involving one. in “Der Lindenbaum”, the cajoling and tempting “komm her zu mir, Geselle, hier findest du deine Ruh!” and the later “du fändest Ruhe dort“was portrayed with such regret that the narrator longed so much to lose himself that you wanted to weep with anguish at the earlier decision of not choosing peace and comfort. His performance possessed a sense of “innigkeit” which informed every note, and sung and played with a rapture and sense of devotion which had me on the edge of my seat, and on the verge of tears throughout.
In such an outstanding performance, there were so many high points that I find it difficult to select a few. Even writing this almost a week later, I can still hear his clear voice and the heartfelt “Ihr lacht wohl über den Träumer, der Blumen im Winter sah?” and the reminiscing of “Ach, dass die Luft so ruhig!”. Winterreise was brought to a close with the hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Der Leiermann”. Here, Eng paced slowly and walked behind the piano, letting Thio take the spotlight as if he was the old man playing the barrel organ. Standing behind the piano but still facing the audience, Eng sang quietly, intoning his words so softly with an air of rapture. Although the piano is far more sophisticated than the primitive barrel organ, the simple tune that Schubert writes is effective in telling us the power of its music. The short, folk-like refrain remained long in the mind of the audience, and it is as though it was directionless but persistent, repeating itself over and over and over…