It was, apparently, the boys of the Schola Cantorum choir, performing at St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast, and not their director Nigel McClintock, who requested repeated re-takes of the 15 tracks comprising O Come Let Us Adore Him, their new album of Christmas music.
Now that's dedication. In just three short years, McClintock has instilled in his young singers a desire for perfection that bodes well for the future. This fledgling choir could yet go on to much bigger and better things.
McClintock is, however, a firm believer in the spontaneity and urgency of the moment. What you hear on this new disc is a collection of real-time, live performances that are unadulterated by the dark arts of the digital post-editing suite, where mediocrity and dullness can nowadays be cut and pasted into a cosmetically perfect commercial product.
The choir's enthusiasm is immediately apparent, and you get the sense of living, breathing music-making from the opening, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. In the last verse the trebles’ descant soars elatedly over the full-voiced unison of the tenors and basses.
It’s a long way from the cloistered reverence that can stifle choral singing in the Anglican tradition, with which McClintock is intimately familiar. This is a deliberately edgier sound, with a more direct, visceral impact on the listener.
There’s plenty of finesse leavening the physicality, however, especially in the unanimity of vowel sounds, a desperately tricky area to get right in choral singing. Small details such as the repetition of the words ‘comfort and joy’ in the refrain of ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’ are also telling.
Often these phrases become an inaudible mush, but McClintock deftly etches out a space for his boys to articulate them properly, without sounding over-punctilious.
The quieter singing is also highly impressive, and well supported technically (young voices in particular can droop like wilted flowers at low volume levels if not trained properly). This enables a performance of ‘Silent Night’ that is disarmingly direct in expression, brightly lustred tonally, and with a pleasingly natural, integrated balance between the upper and lower voices.
Two of the Schola trebles recently reached the final of the National Choirboy of the Year competition, and both have solos. Donal McCann features on Kenneth Leighton’s ‘Lully Lulla’, a challenging setting with tricky intervals, to which the choir is fully equal. McCann takes centre stage in a poised, affecting rendition of Michael Head’s ‘The Little Road to Bethlehem’.
Joe Zubier, meanwhile, was the other national finalist, and his limpid tone adorns Adolphe Adam’s ‘O Holy Night’. McClintock’s clever variation of dynamics avoids the soporific effect this beautiful music can easily create in too soft-centred a performance. Zubier also impresses in a confident, crystalline ‘Come unto Him’ from Handel’s Messiah, complete with authentic Baroque ornamentations.
The CD comes complete with informative notes about the history of Schola Cantorum and St Peter’s, a detailed specification of the cathedral’s Kenneth Jones organ, and a full listing of choir members (over 60 singers participated in the recording).
It’s a timely issue for the Christmas season, and showcases the extremely high standards of singing currently being achieved by the boys of Schola Cantorum, a gleaming star in Belfast’s musical firmament. For further information about Schola Cantorum go to their website.
O Come Let Us Adore Him can be purchased for £12 in the bookshop at St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. All proceeds go towards supporting the work and future development of Schola Cantorum.