“Love is in the air” or at least it was in last night’s concert with Chanticleer. This slick, sophisticated all-male chorus from San Francisco returned to Ireland, charming one and all once again with their vocal artistry, technical prowess and their show business nous. Singing love songs was never going to be hard to market – it has an irresistible, wide-ranging appeal – and the audience thronged the concert hall. And while quite a few of the songs on offer were delectable canapés – dainty morsels of three minute sweet nothings that flattered and seduced the ear – there were other outré compositions that challenged both the intellect and the genre.

© Chanticleer
© Chanticleer

Cleverly grouping their programme by a mixture of period, language, poetry and country, Chanticleer’s offerings stretched the gamut from the biblical poetry to Freddie Mercury, from the poetry of Ronsard to the witty repartee of Noël Coward. It was as eclectic as it was entertaining, and as enchanting as it was exploratory.

Given the strong connections between love and poetry, it was unsurprising that each of the songs of the first half were based upon pre-existing poems. The first group were five songs from five different composers from that most erotic book of the bible, the Song of Songs. Starting a concert with polyphony does pose its challenges and in Vivanco’s opening Veni, dilecte mi the group took time to settle. In particular the laser-like tuning and fulsome tone which were in evidence for the rest of the concert wobbled at times particularly among the male sopranos. Given that the work is scored for two four-voice choirs, Chanticleer’s division of eight voices and four was uneven with the second choir sounding significantly lighter. Their doubling up of numbers in Jacobus Clemens non Papa’s Ego flos campi was much more successful with a light, soufflé-like texture. It was not until Francisco Guerrero’s Surge, propera amica mea that all the voices had fully settled as the lines of polyphony swelled and hovered in the air.

The madrigals from Philippe De Monte Bonjour mon Coeur, Le premier jour du mois de May, Madame allowed Chanticleer to instantly switch styles with smooth, delicate lines in evidence in the former and pellucid diction in both. The gleeful exchange in the flirtatious lines of the latter lifted their restraint, which characterised at times their approach to the porcelain perfections of polyphony.

It was not until the very recently commissioned work by Finnish composer Jaako Mäntyjärvi Hommage à Edith that the smouldering desires of love reached a more animated level. Here, Chanticleer excelled at pitching the most exacting atonal chords with unfailing accuracy. The second poem in this set Lyre of the gods was haunting with its atmospheric humming and sustained pedal notes while the final piece To Eros was equally impressive with its whispering, stratospherically high notes for the countertenor and slinking atonal harmonies.

Tenor Brian Hinman performed a solo before the interval singing Foster’s Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair. It was touching in its sensitivity featuring some wonderful, light crooning in the background.

Apart from one contemporary piece from Augusta Read Thomas, the post interval programme grew increasingly classical-lite. Thomas created a unique sound-world in Love Songs; rapid-fire ostinatos, bell-like effects, theatrical laughing all contributed to this kaleidoscope of sound.

The Russian repertoire of Glinka, Taneyev and Rachmaninov burst forth in a blaze of colour and light-hearted cheer while Cortez Mitchell spun the delicate thread of Vocalise’s melody with great sensitivity. Here the seamless phrases were buoyed effortlessly amidst the sea of voices.  

Where I found Chanticleer most at home was luxuriating in the decadently jazz harmonies of Gershwin, Piaf and Coward, and judging from the enthusiastic applause, keeping a large part of their target audience very happy indeed. They were intelligent enough however to revel in the more recherché harmonic side of the arrangements with 9ths, 11ths and 13ths abounding. The closing song of Freddy Mercury Somebody to Love with its sharp rhythms and blues’ feel was perfectly timed to bring the house down.