Sunday, May 1, 2011

Martin Ng's "From Monteverdi to Mascagni" in Review

From Monteverdi to Mascagni
Exploring the Ialian Song Through the Ages
Martin Ng (bass)
28th April 2011
Esplanade Recital Studio
written by Hawk Liu

It's always good to have local singers featured as soloists at the esplanade - am I bias?

Singapore born Martin Ng gave us an evening of Italian art songs from the baroque to the late romantic period so we got a palette of styles in one evening. Composers featured included Caccini, Monteverdi, Cesti, Scarlatti, Caldara, Vivaldi, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Ponchielli, Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni, in that order. It was a nice treat!

The first half had early music from Caccini to Vivaldi and a cembalo was used! YAY! It was a pleasure to hear the rare instrument featured so strongly in any concert here. Shane Thio did a splendid job with the embellishments and fiendish, difficult runs in Vivaldi. The instrument seemed schizophrenic to me in terms of sound. There were many moments it actually overpowered the singer, especially in the appeggios, and then there were times when the dynamic levels were so low, especially in the fast passages. Nonetheless, it was a joy to listen to it, and well played. The second half used a sub-six-foot grand. I thought the balance between voice and piano was perfect!

The voice was a large and rich one. Throughout the evening I was thinking of a similar voice in the recorded catalogue that Ng's voice could match. It seemed to remind me of a few voices and I couldn't place my finger on any specific one. I did keep one in mind and it was Samuel Ramey. I had trouble placing Ng's voice because, for a good half of the programme, Ng was giving a whole palette of different vocal colours, even within individual phrases, so much that I didn't know which voice was his. The low notes were secure and the high ones easy enough once he had warmed up. Negotiating intervals was easy and he certainly placed the voice well when he had to do the jumps. I particularly like his ability at florid passages, they were easily executed and exciting to listen to. They are the true 'bel canto' runs where notes are supposed to melt into one smooth string of pearls and not the incisive ones that one might get from, say, Cristina Deutekom who represents that kind of technique. Just to qualify, I enjoy both types of technical styles of doing runs.

Not all was well though. Amarilli, being the first piece, didn't do it for me with the over dramatising, which happened for the next few pieces as well. Because of the frequent change in dynamics (can't hear the pp notes!), the voice sounded like a clumsy bass at first. Maybe it wasn't so much the over dramatising per se, but the frequent changes in vocal colours that unsettled me. I wasn't sure what his real voice was - sometimes, there was the deep, big voice, sometimes there was the bright ringing one, and then there was a slightly nasal middle high note here and there, and there was the mezza voce which stuck out a bit when the immediately preceding notes are ringing so nicely (I wasn't so keen on the mezza voce because the larynx was pulled a bit too low for my liking). So I was confused. In the first two sets of songs, he didn't keep the intensity in the vocal line for much of the time.

The major element that didn't go well for the evening was the pitching - singing the actual notes. I would say for half of the time in some songs, he sang approximate pitches of the notes he was supposed to sing, or he would arrive at a note by micro-slides and would continue to micro slide from that note! At times, it sounded as if he slided through all the notes in the single phrases. I didn't recognise the melodies in some pieces, such as Gia il sole dal Gange and Amarilli.

In terms of presentation, my friends did mention that he didn't look at the audience enough. I disagreed. It happened only during the first piece and then he was connecting enough after that. Maybe what my friends perceived as non-communication might be the facial expressions used. That was quite a bit of expressions that were more for the execution of making the voice than for emoting and I was hoping for a more relaxed style of presentation. Certainly, I noticed a very pleasant smile whenever he took his bows and that was needed for most of the songs.

Despite the negatives, there were many enjoyable moments. He had a reliable and beautiful trill, albeit soft whenever executed. The Vivaldi - sol da te was a good example of bel canto singing and there were fewer off-pitching moments. I totally enjoyed the other Vivaldi (orribile lo scempio) with the florid passages well executed. The Vivaldi pieces, for the first time, showed that Ng was certainly capable of clean vocal lines and exceptionally delivery.

In the second half, the Donizetti, Rossini and Verdi numbers were regularly done and I started to feel more comfortable with the voice. By the time he got to Ponchielli (Dimenticar ben mio), I was hearing a more majestic voice with much, much longer flowing vocal lines. The voice was even in its range. There was the hint of Samuel Ramey's timbre. The ever popular Sole e amore (Puccini), sharing material with the quartet of La Boheme's third act, was slightly less flowing. I am glad to see the mischievous smile on Ng's face when he sang Puccini's name (originally written into the song) at the end. Another Puccini song, E l'uccelino, was used as the only encore, and it was well delivered. Mascagni and Leoncavallo were also well sung.

To sum up, the voice was more enjoyable in the second half of music from the Romantic and Late Romantic /Verismo periods. The voice blossomed in the Ponchielli piece more than any other, even more than the verismo ones. We were treated to many moments of beautiful long vocal lines, not forgetting the delightful runs and trills. We do wish Ng a good success in his career.

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