National Chamber Choir

Philip Hammond finds little to sing about in the Great Hall at Queen's

'Comparisons are odious' – or 'odorous' to quote Shakespeare. But they are inevitable. At the National Chamber Choir's concert in the Great Hall at Queen’s, I can’t help it.

The last time I heard the choir it was under the direction of Celso Antunes, a Brazilian of tremendous energy and enthusiasm, which I always found infectious. Tonight the new director of just over one year’s standing is Paul Hillier, an Englishman of excellent pedigree and experience. The choir’s personnel has also changed - and it seems to be getting younger.

Right from the start I find the blend of these 18 singers uneasy in their sober unison performance of The Dublin Troper. Some of the female voices are too fond of vibrato, which the warm, wood-embraced acoustic of the Great Hall leaves clear for all to hear. It also exposes a number of noticeable vocal faults.

However, it’s only the opener, and in Ian Wilson’s 'The Beloved and Her Lover' no such obvious distractions taint the multi-layered choral lines of this colourful and undulating soundscape.

Wilson’s music can be strangely static and against this backdrop the almost folk-like solo lines of Deirdre Moynihan stand out in sharp relief. Wilson has such a good ear for producing textures that draw you in to a warm and cosy world which, despite its complex harmonies, is light and transparent.

The programme of this concert is entitled 'A collection of work exploring Ireland’s influence on choral music'. South African born Kevin Volans’ contribution to this exploration comes in the shape of his 'One Fine Day', which exploits the clicking vocal techniques of his native land. Volans’ post-minimalist repetitions soon become predictable instead of propulsive and with the odd sag in pitch evince a certain lack of bite in this performance.

The inclusion of Australian Percy Grainger ‘s choral setting of 'Danny Boy' (tastefully wordless in this version) seems to me to be gratuitous. There’s a time and place for this cliché at the end of some indigestibly overblown evening for American tourists – but its justification here is tenuous.

I look forward to a palate-clearing sorbet and it comes in the shape of Dubliner Andrew Hamilton’s 'Everything is Ridiculous'. Aptly named, Hamilton’s piece sounds like a stuck record, cleverly written and short enough to be amusing before becoming irksome.

Stanford’s 'The Blue Bird' is one of the standards of the choral repertoire. Again, I detect a certain lack of conviction in the choir’s performance. These singers have already shown themselves technically assured but their tone is produced at less than full strength or emotional range.

Honorary Irishman Arnold Bax had a penchant for writing often interminable chromatic harmonies in the style of Delius and his English contemporaries. His straightforward setting - none the less attractive for that - of  'This Worldes Joie' is well within the choir’s capabilities and for the first time I detect an ease and confidence about their singing. Bax’s writing highlights in particular the set of rich bass voices that provide a firm foundation for the rest of the choir.

The unseasonal programming of EJ Moeran’s 'Songs of Springtime' provides the choir with another opportunity to display their substantial choral credentials but this music, while probably rewarding and worthy enough from the singer’s perspective, sounds turgid and dated. Technically this is a high note upon which to end but, to this ear, an unsatisfying conclusion.

Compared to the high I always got from Antunes’ energised National Chamber Choir and his exciting programmes under Paul Hillier's aegis it is all sadly underwhelming.


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