EIF: Edinburgh Festival Chorus
Edinburgh Academy Junior School
Henry Purcell, in his wicked moments, had fun with canons. On the face of it, they were innocent trifles, but combine the layers of successive voice entries and hey presto, tawdry language emerged from the wilful collision of syllables and vowels.
In Aidan Oliver’s delightful final day presentation at the Festival, featuring members of his Edinburgh Festival Chorus and small instrumental ensemble, the air remained pure as he and his musicians breezed their way through a short but engaging canonic journey.
It was as much a journey through time. The opening Sumer is icumen in, rooted in 13th century origins and famous for its rousing presence in cult film The Wicker Man, paved the way for a variety of styles and treatments from 17th century Thomas Ravenscroft (his rousing fusion of Three Country Dances presented simultaneously as a round), to one of 20th century Benjamin Britten’s “Friday Afternoon” songs for children (his somewhat darkened version of Old Abram Brown), to the even more up-to-date sounds of Errollyn Wallen, Richard Crossland and Abbie Betinis.
Wallen’s Rice and Beans – and Plantains Too takes its structural inspiration from the Britten, but otherwise is laced with the eclectic contemporary twists this composer always utilises to energising effect. The title refers to a favourite dish from her birthplace in Belize, and here was a performance that served it up a treat, rhythmically infectious and with smiling countenance. It was also a neat little appendix to Wallen’s opera Dido’s Ghost, one of this year’s earlier Festival successes.
Other contemporary gems on Sunday included Betinis’ plaintive Be like a bird, with its surreal whistled conclusion, Crossland’s whimsical Liverpool Street Station, and Bob Chilcott’s updating of Tallis’ Canon, which takes an old favourite and wraps it in a blanket of melting, thick-set harmonies.
One of the benefits in hearing the EIF Chorus in miniature is to experience it in a scale of repertoire it would otherwise not have time for. When do Holst’s partsongs ever make it onto an international festival platform? Three of them did so here, exposing their lush sentiment and charm.
All of this could so easily have seemed like a casual miscellany. But thanks to Oliver’s personable and informative spoken links, the whole came together as seamless, directional and enjoyable.
And it ended on a familiar note, Pachelbel’s Canon, but with the addition of Thomas Campion’s poem “Come, o come my life’s delight” as a neatly interwoven text, arranged by Oliver himself, and – as has so often been the case in this semi-outdoor Festival – a timely intervention from the outside world. On the words “come then and make thy flight” an outgoing plane roared overhead. Perversely. I’ve quite enjoyed these moments.