Chamber Choir Ireland at St Stephen’s (Pepper Canister) Church, Dublin, on 13 March 2022

With its second recital this year at the Pepper Canister Church, Chamber Choir Ireland today promises music as atmospheric as the historic setting, with sounds of visceral street level all the way up to the distant sky. Conducted by artistic director Paul Hillier, the eclectic programme is partly a retrospective of the work of late British composer Steve Martland, mixed with Clément Janequin’s Missa La Bataille from 500 years ago, and bookended with calls to devotion and peace.

Choirs were promptly off the scene when the lockdowns began, though Chamber Choir Ireland did well to maintain its presence, and it is good to see the ensemble together at full strength (sixteen singers) once again, and all singing together and sounding well. Honouring the people of Ukraine, they start with a setting of Psalm 103 (‘Bless the Lord, o my soul’) by Ukrainian composer Galina Grigorjeva. There is a refreshing clarity and immediacy to the choral sound, shafts of light coming through the texture like patches of sunlight. Grigorjeva’s writing suggests something of the enraptured style of Orthodox chant, transformed to suit its English text, which is well-served by the singers’ diction.

The style changes but the fullness of tone continues in the movements of the Janequin mass. There is a ruggedness to this Renaissance material, reflecting its origins in popular song (in particular the imitative battle-motet ‘La Bataille’ on which it is based). The choir’s approach is punchy and expressive, bringing out the different layers to good effect. Despite the crisp delivery and sensitivity, though, opportunities to experience the strangeness of this material have perhaps been set aside in the interests of stylish efficiency. The Latin we hear is Italian, not French, and the singers’ tuning and temperament – and the phrasing of certain passages – follow modern tastes, with little sense of older possibilities. Given the time limits on preparing a project like this, it is understandable, but also shows how modernist habits die hard.

Steve Martland, who died in 2013, was a distinctive contributor to British music, working to promote music education and break down barriers between musical styles and attitudes. His Skywalk draws a smoothly gentle approach, with a constantly shifting texture allowing for brilliant moments to shine through from the highest voices, as well as some elegantly-tuned chords. The four ‘Street Songs’ offer a rich variety of styles, with running textures creating beautiful flowing effects. For this, the choir is joined by the superb percussion of Alex Petcu, playing marimba, adding extra layers and extra energy to the sonic profile. The smart playfulness of Oranges and Lemons and the jazzy finale provided by Poor Roger form a powerful contrast to the intense meditations of the inner movements, especially the mournful Jenny Jones – and the beautifully-poised high note at the end of that song is a particular highlight.

Closing the programme, we hear Da Pacem (‘Give Peace’) by Arvo Pärt. Given conductor Hillier’s long involvement with the work of this composer, it is valuable to have him present this work with the choir, especially at this moment in time. For all its stillness, this is an energised and forceful account of the piece, drawing the audience inward in its all-enveloping sound. It is poignant and severe, ending in a rapt moment of silence that we all share, and a fine reminder of the power and beauty that voices alone can achieve, sending us all out into the Spring sunshine.

Paul Hillier (conductor)

Galina Grigorjeva: Psalm 103, ‘Bless the Lord, o my soul’
Clément Janequin: Missa La Bataille
Steve Martland: Skywalk; Street Songs; The Shepherd’s Song
Arvo Pärt: Da Pacem
Chamber Choir Ireland, conductor Paul Hillier