It’s a European Union, but is there musical harmony?

The National Chamber Choir performed an array of ‘masterworks’, but why did so much of the enjoyment seem to be the choir’s

It’s an old adage that talking about music is like dancing about architecture. But sometimes one little word makes all the difference. And at one event last week, for me that word was “ant”.

The setting for this odd experience was one of four programmes in a National Concert Hall series marking Ireland's presidency of the EU, that brought together instrumental and vocal music for small ensembles under the title "European Masterworks". That's a broad banner that might happily wave over any but the most specialised of classical concerts. But its two words might also be said to encapsulate a fundamental tension between the central, chiefly Germanic canon – as epitomised by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms – and the folksier art music of the periphery. The consequences for programme building are inescapable: the more inclusively "European" the choice of works, the less likely it will be dominated by what are generally held to be "masterworks".

The equation was dazzlingly proved by the National Chamber Choir under their artistic director Paul Hillier, whose ability to navigate the ever-expanding atlas of choral repertoire must be second to none. His selection of 11 pieces took in as many member states (more than twice the number of any other concert in the series), and included the only music in the series from Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Portugal. But there wasn't a trace of names such as Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms – any of which might well have appeared on a programme of unaccompanied choral masterworks.

Not that Hillier shunned the mainstream classical tradition. Rather, he came at it from the edges, through the music of the not-long-dead composers Ligeti and Berio, whose work looks set to withstand the test of time as well as any from the 20th century, and of Orlando Gibbons, one of the remarkable circle of Elizabethan and Jacobean composers who took English music to the highest levels of European achievement.


France was also represented by a Renaissance figure, Clément Janequin, whose knack for witty and sometimes salacious partsongs made him the darling of the earliest generation of Parisian music publishers.

The lion's share, however, went to composers born since 1900. Two opposite stylistic extremes were established respectively by the two eldest: Portugal's Fernando Lopes-Graça, whose Ojos, herido me habéis recalled the suave yet declamatory choral idiom of Poulenc, and Finland's Erik Bergman, whose Vier Galgenlieder consisted exclusively of measured and modulated speech. The spectrum was filled in by living composers: the Dutch Louis Andriessen (caught, with his Un beau baiser , in a rare moment of harmonic self-indulgence), Ireland's Siobhán Cleary, Estonia's Arvo Pärt, Latvia's Peteris Vasks, and Lithuania's Rytis Mazulis.

Astonishing dedication
Only if you know what it's like to be led, by some intrepid conductor, into the danger zone of contemporary choral repertoire could you have imagined the sheer dedication that must have gone into preparing the evening's more exacting pieces. Hillier's team took the music in their collective stride, meeting its every technical difficulty and expressive challenge with a kind of electric concentration that often sparked into downright enjoyment. The performing was top notch.

Why then, did so much of the enjoyment seem to be all the choir’s?

The problem was rooted in the music itself, and specifically in the viability and communicability of its concepts. Take the two kindred yet wildly dissimilar pieces that respectively opened each half: Gibbons's The Cries of London and Berio's avant garde retake with the same title.

For early 17th-century Londoners, the intonations of street vendors touting fresh herrings, hot apple pies, cabbages and turnips were an everyday experience. Those sounds were also the unlikeliest possible ingredients for a polyphonic composition, and to graft them on to the grave and didactic medium of the viol consort resulted in something as comical as Renaissance music could get.

Hillier's interpretation necessarily substituted voices for Gibbons's original viol parts, but in such a way that the words made little impact and the music's essential mock-solemnity was downplayed. And while Berio's 1974 Cries came across with exuberant confidence, in close proximity to Gibbons's genuine article, it was hard to hear much more in this reinvention of the old idea than what the composer himself described as "an exercise in musical characterisation and dramatisation".

The general theme of Cries was stretched to include exclamations of all kinds, its germ having been the crazy polyglot banter of Cleary's Theophilus Thistle and the Myth of Miss Muffet (2011). The text, a medley of what Cleary describes as "word-games [that] exist because of the sheer pleasure of their articulation", was culled from two dozen European languages and dialects. The setting takes the form of a series of epigrammatic sections, each distinctively textured by its own combination of sung and spoken effects. But the greater part of the appeal resides in the novelty of the concept.

The relevance of Arvo Pärt's The Deer's Cry , commissioned by Louth Contemporary Music Society in 2008, was obvious from the title, although perhaps not from the text itself. One of the miracles attributed to St Patrick was his transformation of some of the first Irish Christians into deer, who scampered off uttering the prayer "Christ with me, Christ within me". A curious vision, and one that might bring an intriguing dimension to a musical setting of those words. But bringing out meanings and associations is not Pärt's way.

Like the many hundreds of others enunciated by the NCC that evening, the one word on which the concert hung wasn't printed in the programme book, and would have passed me by had not Hillier, in talking about the music, read out a full translation of The Dazzled Eye Lost Its Speech .

There’s not much more to this little poem, which Mazulis set in a Lithuanian rendering from Stanislaw Grochowiak’s original Polish. But knowing that the teeming canonic counterpoint was allied to the surreal line “it was rolled out on the globe by a little ant with slender legs” decisively supplied that one thing the other music lacked: a vivid musical image.