Love & Other Nonsense

The National Chamber Choir of Ireland show their chops at St Thomas's Parish Church

Battologisms, spoonerisms and shibboleths. They’re all types of word-game, hard enough to twist your tongue around at the best of times. But have you ever tried singing them? In two dozen different languages and dialects? While occasionally stamping your feet in accompaniment?

That’s the daunting challenge set by the Dublin composer, Siobhán Cleary, in Theophilus Thistle & The Myth of Miss Muffet, a commission written for the Cork International Choral Festival in 2011. It’s given a dazzlingly virtuosic performance by the National Chamber Choir of Ireland as part of their Moving on Music concert in St Thomas’s Parish Church, Belfast, entitled Love and Other Nonsense.

The choir has 16 members, each one of whom needs to be sharply on cue for the complicated parts included in Cleary's work. They never falter, catching the bubbling musical and intellectual energies of the piece with verve and aplomb, and etching in its frequent shafts of humour with wry assurance.

There’s sibilant sighing in Theophilus, tongues clacking, and at one point the sopranos sound as though they’ve inhaled significant quantities of voice-squeaking helium. It’s a tour de force of 21st century vocal chicanery, a clever and richly entertaining composition.

Cleary’s isn’t the only piece on the programme to use sounds and disconnected syllables as building blocks, rather than words with definite linguistic meanings. Enda Bates, another Dublin composer, does so to entirely different effect in Euphony, mimicking aspects of the Sardinian ‘cantu a tenore’ style of folk singing.

The result is a glowing arc of mellifluously shifting harmonies, spiritual mood music expanding soothingly into the warm St Thomas’s acoustic. The piece highlights the choir’s superbly well balanced and integrated tutti singing, and the ripe, rounded quality of tone it possesses – as pure vocalism, it’s a beautiful sound to listen to.

Much of the credit for this goes to Paul Hillier, the National Chamber Choir of Ireland’s artistic director and principal conductor, and one of the leading choral practitioners in the world at present. One of Hillier’s own arrangements, of Orlando Gibbons’s The Cries of London (listen a version performed by Luciano Berio below), opens the concert, recreating the calls of 17th century street vendors in a swirl of contending voices.

The technical skill of the singers here in so nimbly negotiating the huge amount of text set by Gibbons – lampreys, peascods, samphire, frumenty and poking sticks are among the items you’d find difficult to locate in your local supermarket nowadays – is again hugely impressive.

It’s all done with such poise and confidence, with no sense of straining for individual lines and interjections to register. Fortunately full texts and explanations are printed in the excellent programme.

Encounter, by Peteris Vasks, shows off the choir’s ability to build a gradual crescendo, and the surprising amount of raw volume it can summon from its 16 voices. The upward glissando in the sopranos at the work’s conclusion is done with pleasing unanimity, and the whistling called for by the composer is managed un-self-consciously and convincingly – not an easy combination.

Love & Other Nonsense is, all told, a wonderfully stimulating and imaginative programme, and the performances are of world-class quality. Singing of this standard is a rarity, and the National Chamber Choir of Ireland’s visits to Belfast are currently major highlights of the city’s musical calendar. Let’s hope that they continue.