Ulster Youth Choir

Volatile acoustics trump the hard seats at St Anne's Cathedral

Big sacred buildings like St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast inspire the faithful to contemplate the larger things in life, whatever they consider those to be. For others of us, all those impressively hard surfaces may bring to mind the comfortless side of existence.

In purely practical terms, these buildings produce a resonant acoustic which is long and volatile. This generally favours the voice but works against instruments – with the possible exception of the organ. So all should be well for the Ulster Youth Choir, who sing a capella in St Anne’s on September 4 with occasional accompaniment from the king of instruments.

These youthful voices are in good hands with Greg Beardsell. Although young himself he has considerable choral experience and knows what will work and what won’t. His programme of Sacred Songs – Choral Masterworks from the last Seven Centuries is eclectic and he can’t go wrong by starting with the deceptively simple music of Arvo Pärt. As one of the so-called 'holy minimalists', Pärt’s spiritual aural-scape is spiced with semitonal clashes – tensions is probably a better word – which add colour to the repetitive, meditative harmonies. The choir sings both works by this composer with sensitivity and a surprising degree of maturity.

Bearsdell’s charisma is further enhanced by his short enlightening intros to the various items on the programme. Next up, he presents a 'Gloria' from Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame. I am struck by the modernity of this piece despite its mediaeval origin and its similarities to Pärt. I like the broad, coarse vowels adopted by the choristers to achieve a degree of authenticity but although the cathedral’s acoustic must be similar to the original venue, the hocket rhythmic games in the music tend to suffer from over-resonance.

György Orbán’s short but textually not sweet Daemon Irrepit Callidus provides a virtuosic interlude before the Lobet den Herrn motet by J S Bach - although Beardsell casts a certain academic doubt over the attribution of this piece to J S Bach in his introduction. Anxious about the acoustic, he has decided to sing this piece unaccompanied, but, despite that precaution, the lengthy reverberation of the cathedral foils the singers’ best and most heroic attempts at total clarity.

Even for non-believers, there is an exhilarating bounce to Walton’s uplifting Jubilate Deo after the interval, evocative of the English choral tradition and complete with deft organ accompaniment from Nigel McClintock who neatly crosses the religious divide for the evening.

The ensuing sixteenth century works by John Sheppard are almost subdued by comparison. They require sustained tone throughout and this is always a danger for intonation. The choir handles the difficulties well although it is almost inevitable that some pitching seems a little suspect here and there.

No such considerations are raised in Brahms’ Geistliches Lied which brings out the choir’s fine balance between inner voices and organ accompaniment. I am again impressed by the mature sonorities of these young voices, especially the girls.

Finally, the choir produces highly charged, emotional performances of Tippett’s Five Negro Spirituals. Beardsell guides his young charges through this music with understanding, knowing when to push them and when to keep something in reserve. There is an excellent range of dynamic – as there has been during the entire programme - and the acoustic is particularly effective for the layer upon layer of very effective vocal writing in these spirituals.

A couple of little encores by Irish composer Michael McGlynn is a response to a standing ovation, which finally, finally, rounds off this engaging concert - proving the continuing efficacy of bringing the best youthful talent together on occasion for top ranking tuition.