Playing With Reverence

Conductor Paul Hillier of Chamber Choir Ireland

Playing With Reverence

From Schnittke to David Fennessy, Bernd Franke to Galina Grigorjeva, Chamber Choir Ireland's two most recent programmes introduced a fascinating range of repertoire to audiences, writes Anna Murray.

The two most recent programmes by Chamber Choir Ireland, ‘The Great Mystery’ and ‘The Orthodox Spirit’, seemed carefully designed to show off just exactly what the ensemble is capable of right now. 

‘The Great Mystery’ (24 May, St Ann’s Church, Dublin) – the title was drawn from the featured Peter Maxwell Davies (1934–2016) carols O Magnum Mysterium – drew heavily and unashamedly on Christmas-related content despite taking place in May, even going so far as to feature promotional material bedecked with gold stars. For this concert, built around two works by Orlandus Lassus (1530–1594), the choir, conducted by Paul Hillier, exploited its ability to create a purity of sound to match these Renaissance psalms; indeed, maybe due to the presence of a number of recent younger additions to the choir, and deputies brought in for this performance, the ensemble sounded exceptionally fresh. The opening piece, the first Lassus psalm, was beautifully served by this delivery, which brought luminosity to every subtle variation in the tone and the texture as it moved among combinations of voices.

This direct, unaffected expression was also an excellent match for the austere Maxwell Davies carols, as well as the newer works in the programme, such as Luther Madrigals by Bernd Franke (b. 1959), a character portrait originally written for the King’s Singers last year. An imaginative work arranged here for six male voices, it played with a humanist and reverent view of Martin Luther King, see-sawing from light, gossipy chattering to heartfelt prayer, sometimes even within a single movement. The performers played multiple roles simultaneously, sometimes commentator, sometimes gossip and sometimes Luther himself – even as they sang the words ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’. Moving around the space, they constantly tested the relationship between these roles just as they explored the relationships between their shifting musical lines. 

Remember Not
At the centre of the programme was a new work by Irish composer David Fennessy (b. 1976), Ne Reminiscaris (Remember Not), the second in a series of three commissions by Chamber Choir Ireland. Described by the composer as an ‘awakening…a sense of being alive’, this work uses a fragment from the opening Lassus psalm as a kind of obsessive grounding, a solid, comforting hand-hold that one might grasp while trying to drag oneself into awareness, as if from a heavy sleep. It oscillated under the upper solo voices, which sometimes sat back and sometimes pushed forward as the piece gradually unfolded outwards. The effect was like a group emerging from a dreamy haze, with each individual member finding their own place in a brand new world of colour, with increasing wonder and growing confidence.

Despite the incongruity of the Christmas connections in early summer, the ambition of ‘The Great Mystery’ was more than matched by the ensemble, with the two Lassus psalms anchoring an adventurous centre raised high by the Franke in particular.

Bursting wide open
‘The Orthodox Spirit’ (21 June, Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin) had a more straightforward brief, to bring together music associated with the Russian Orthodox Church, but it covered a huge range of music. Beautifully balanced throughout, the choir was able to bring out the strength of lower voices required to carry this music.

The choir introduced the audience to Orthodox music in its purest form through two examples of seventeenth-century chant, the Kiev chant Blazhen muzh and an example of Znamenny polyphony, both of which utilised long, meandering lines in complex constructions, occasionally bursting wide open on a change as simple as a shift in vowel sound. These were at the heart of orthodox music, and a fascinating musical experience for a twenty-first-century Irish audience. Between these sat two works by Estonian composers which acted as a kind of contemporary echo, a 2015 piece by Arvo Pärt, Kleine Litanei, and a rather filmic piece by Galina Grigorjeva (b. 1962) – notably the only female composer in either concert.

Stravinsky to Schnittke
The inclusion of works by lesser-known composers Vasily Titov (1650–1750), Giuseppe Sarti (1729–1802) and Dmitri Bortniansky (1751–1825) gave a different perspective on the central theme of Orthodox music, giving it firmly European baroque and classical flavours. The performers were evidently sensitive to the different demands these changing approaches placed on them, but the music of these just failed to grasp the imagination quite as much as the larger works, such as Stravinsky’s joyful but urgent Three Sacred Pieces. A selection of works from Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil seemed to simultaneously bring the music back to its Orthodox roots and expand the expressive space around them. This work was strong and full in its realisation by the choir, with relentless pedals underpinning a huge sound, but still maintaining a feeling of reverence throughout.

However, Alfred Schnittke’s Three Sacred Hymns (see video below) may have been a personal highlight. These three short pieces seemed to hold at their core the essence of Orthodox music as presented in the rest of the concert. By simply dividing the choir into two groups, singing together but occupying a different key space, Schnittke created something vast and expansive, with a deep, encompassing warmth that seemed to express something unique through this musical and spiritual tradition.

Shaped and guided by the sensitive hands of conductor Paul Hillier, Chamber Choir Ireland continue to be sonically and musically adventurous. 

Chamber Choir Ireland will perform The Orthodox Spirit in St Canice’s, Kilkenny on 19 August as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival, and a new programme titled Visions, with guest conductor Nils Schweckendiek, in St Ann’s Church in Dublin on 22 September as part of Culture Night. www.chamberchoirireland.com

Published on 8 August 2017

Anna Murray is Assistant Editor of The Journal of Music. Her website is www.annamurraymusic.com.