The Quincunx of Heaven – Chamber Choir Ireland, University Church, Dublin, 25th October 2014

When an internationally-renowed Grammy awarding-winning choral conductor and arranger conducts sacred music in the stunning acoustics of University Chapel on St. Stephen’s Green with sixteen of Ireland (and elsewhere) most-accomplished sacred music vocalists then one can expect a great evening, and that was the case on Saturday night when Chamber Choir Ireland under the direction of Paul Hiller presented their latest, rather cryptically-titled concert “The Quincunx of Heaven”. 

The programme is based on a 17th century quote from Sir Thomas Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus referring to the five stars about the horizon at midnight where we are “unwilling to spin out our waking thoughts into the phantasm of sleep”. There are a number of geometric and quincuncial elements to the performance the most obvious being the choice of five composers Henry Purcell, Orlando Gibbons, Thomas Weelkes, Sven-David Sandström, with the brightest star being the presentation of Paul Hindemith’s final work Mass, although presented without the Sanctus and Benedictus movements.

Best known for his Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, Hindemith is less in vouge than might be expected given his international career as a performer and composer, his influential writings on music, and his academic career as an educator; but then this has always been the case for the composer both revered and reviled by the Third Reich. As a neo-classicist he had more in common with Schoenberg, Max Reger or J.S. Bach than with any other composers. His music is intricate constructed using various techniques including counterpoint, fauxbourdon, isorhythmic techniques, as well as creating his own system of tonality based on contrasting consonance against dissonance. Chamber Choir Ireland communicate this contrast beautifully creating a fluctuating tilting acoustic, which is never unsettling, between the subtle nuances of the shifting tonality. The Mass utilises all of these various techniques, but the result of all this technical compositional processing is an incredibly communicative and seemingly-organic sound. The strength of Chamber Choir Ireland, under Hillier’s direction, is in the communication of the composer’s intentions in a coherent and passionate manner. The Mass was distributed between the works of the other composers, most of whom are from the seventeenth-century, and yet the programme communicated the similarities and subtle differences between the composers, with the choir demonstrating how the works compliment and elucidate each other.

Weelkes’ When David heard is an exquisite seventeenth-century gem in which David hears of his son Absalom’s death and pleads with God to take him instead. The choir perform the piece with impassioned desperation, adding an intimacy and urgency which perfectly matched the mood of the lyrics. Sven-David Sandström’s arrangement of Purcell’s Hear my prayer begins with the sixteen choristers dispersing themselves around the altar, some half-hidden between pillars, the result of which is that the acoustics of the chapel were entirely altered resulting in a sonorous reverberating acoustic which enveloped the audience from all sides. Like Hindemith’s Mass, Sandström’s modern arrangement, fuelled by subtle complexity results in a work that is both modern and ancient. Hillier has a remarkable ability to engage his singers to emotionally connect with the repertoire and to effectively communicate this to audiences.

The evening provides a tranquil exploration of how sacred music can be intimate, emotional and timeless, performed in the perfect setting. Their next performance is entitled Nine Lessons and Carols and takes place on December 6th in Christ Church Cathedral, and will feature some selections from their new Christmas album Carols from the old and new worlds which is being released this week.


Henry Purcell: I was glad when they said unto me

Henry Purcell: Remember not Lord our offences

Paul Hindemith: Mass: Kyrie; Gloria

Orlando Gibbons: Almighty and everlasting God

Paul Hindemith: Mass: Credo

Thomas Weelkes: When David heard

Paul Hindemith: Mass: Agnus Dei

Purcell: Lord how long wilt thou be angry

Purcell/Sven-David Sandström: Hear my prayer

Orlando Gibbons: O clap your hands together