ERCU / Bawtree

St Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh

A suggestion by former National Theatre boss Nicholas Hytner that arts funding be split, along sports lines, between professionals and amateurs, has sparked some debate, but the world of choral singing is one obvious sphere where it doesn’t stack up at all.

In Scotland, this year has been filled with concerts in which non-professional choirs gave world premieres of new music – something that would have been highly unusual not very long ago. Here was another, and with something of a tale of the times in its first performance coming to Edinburgh.

For the centenary of the Malvern Festival Chorus, which fell in 2019, Scottish composer Rory Boyle was asked to return to the choir he had previously directed for more than a decade to conduct a work of his choice in a celebration concert. He suggested to his successor, Jonathan Brown, that he compose something for the occasion and set four short texts in English, including words by Shakespeare and William Soutar, under the title Cantemus Igitur.

Alas the entire project was a casualty of the Covid pandemic, and the ten-minute piece remained unperformed until Saturday, when the Edinburgh Choral and its director Michael Bawtree, gave a very robust and full-voiced account of a piece that sounds well worth a place in the repertoire of many amateur choirs, and within the capabilities of many. If there are any difficulties with it securing further performances they are more likely to stem from the orchestral score, which is rhythmically complex, but was very securely performed here by freelance ensemble the Edinburgh Pro Musica Orchestra, led by Gina McCormack and with a few well-known faces in the ranks.

The other work on the programme was Joseph Haydn’s The Seasons, or rather the first half of it.

Having sung Autumn and Winter previously, this seasonal rendition of  Spring and Summer featured three young soloists in soprano Ines Mayhew-Begg, tenor Seumas Begg and baritone Christian Loizou, with multi-tasking conductor Bawtree adding piano continuo to the orchestral accompaniment.

The final addition to the mix were choristers from Broughton High School’s Senior Chamber Choir, who had been working with the choir on the Haydn oratorio. The school is the home of the City of Edinburgh Music School, so the second half of the concert began with a short showcase of its work, unaccompanied singing followed by a four hands piano version of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker, and then a jazz quartet playing a Fergus McCreadie arrangement of the Sinatra hit Summer Wind.

This pot-pourri was fine for a warm summer evening, but it might have been even better had it opened with the Boyle and the two Seasons had formed a more coherent second half, rather than having Spring and Summer opening and closing the programme. Using the recent Neil Jenkins text in English, which purports to return the cadences of the proto-Romantic poetry of the era, the choir was in fine voice, and tenor Seumas Begg particularly strong among the soloists, but by the time Summer’s Storm had disrupted the Pastoral labours, and man and beast had found rest, the earlier flowering of Nature’s bounty seemed a very long time ago.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Rory Boyle