Usher Hall, Edinburgh
Its own EIF concert is another significant step in deserved recognition of the quality of the choir Christopher Bell founded, and which passed its quarter century anniversary during the strictures of the pandemic.
The early evening performance of two gems of the choral repertoire was preceded by a show-and-tell, a demonstration by Bell of some of the music education techniques employed by NYCOS, derived from the work of Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, with choir members – and early arrivals at the Usher Hall – willing guinea pigs.
It would have been more interesting to see the charismatic conductor work his magic on a different crowd, truth to tell. Many of those there at 4pm for the pre-show were already invested in the NYCOS project, perhaps with family among the many young people whose lives it has changed. This lot were a little too good at the singing games and rhythm clapping to pass for rookie seven-year-olds being introduced to the Kodaly method for the first time, only to find themselves being able to read music fluently a few years later.
The proof of that came in the concert an hour later. The main work was the Requiem composed by Maurice Duruflé during the Second World War, a work of devotional intensity that calls for singing of muscular power as well as great tenderness. On the platform with NYCOS was the RSNO and two local soloists, Cardiff Singer of the World 2017, mezzo Catriona Morison, who had featured in The Magic Flute the previous evening, and baritone Paul Grant, whose recent career has included a run of roles at La Scala, Milan.
He had pivotal moments in the Offertory and the Libera Me, his role parallel to mighty crescendos by the choir, while Morison had the Pie Jesu, Duruflé following the lead of Fauré in that section of his Requiem. Teaming her voice with the low strings and featuring a fine solo from principal cello Pei-Jee Ng, it is one of the gentlest sections of the mass setting, only surpassed by the choir’s In paradisum at the end – surely one of the loveliest evocations of heaven in all music.
With a full-strength RSNO on stage, this choir was never in any danger of being swamped but nor did the ensemble sound ever seem forced. The balance between the pure toned sopranos and wordless accompanying chorus in the Lux aeterna was another memorable moment.
Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the concert, was sung by the most recent addition to the NYCOS stable of choirs, its Chamber Choir, in its debut recital at last year’s Lammermuir Festival. Setting the words of eccentric 18th century poet Christopher Smart to very inventive contemporary music in 1943, here was the bigger choir tackling the version orchestrated by Imogen Holst for an Aldeburgh Festival nearly a decade later.
The ear-catching words – “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry” began soprano soloist Emily Kemp – were on the supertitles, but the immaculate diction of NYCOS made then unnecessary. Holst’s arrangement, which retains the organ alongside a small orchestra of 32 strings with crucial wind soloists, made the piece, although very different, an ideal partner for the Requiem.
That finding of God in Smart’s pet was followed by alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith and tenor Euan McDonald seeing divinity in a mouse and flowers, before bass Joshua McCullough spelled things out in the text’s child-like alphabetical way. It is a great work for NYCOS to have made its own, the building-blocks of the poet’s faith echoing the lessons in musicianship we’d mimicked earlier.
Portrait of Catriona Morison by Andrew Low