From the altar of their customary home in Edinburgh’s 1691 Canongate Kirk, Calton Consort presented an a cappella concert enigmatically entitled “Translated Daughters”. The enigma dissolved upon hearing W.H. Auden’s text for Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia. It features the arresting couplet: “Translated Daughter, come down and startle / Composing mortals with immortal fire.” As though the transmission of musical inspiration from Heaven to Earth were not difficult enough, Britten experienced his own earthbound obstacles. Director, Jason Orringe’s nicely written and informative programme note relates how, upon Britten’s 1942 return from the US, the manuscript was confiscated by a cautious wartime HM Customs. Unstartled, though possibly inflamed, Britten recreated the score from memory.

Calton Consort
Calton Consort

The calm of the opening verse’s shady garden conveyed, Calton Consort set off at a lick into the scurrying second verse, whose short lines secured a contrasting breathlessness. Diction here was excellent. The third and final verse featured some striking solo voices, particularly one imploring the “impetuous child with the tremendous brain” to “weep away the stain”. This striking, wide ranging phrase, descending in fifths, set us up for the idea of “the bow of sin” being “drawn across our trembling violin”. This was a brilliantly musical offering to music’s patron saint.

The Britten being central to the programme, James MacMillan’s Strathclyde Motets served as its pillars. Framing the complementary items, these sacred pieces showcased both MacMillan and Calton Consort at their best. These works, like those of religious composers of bygone eras, were composed for specific liturgical use. As such, Latin texts and ecclesiastical mores are to be expected. However, MacMillan’s national fingerprint can also be detected in the many snappily Celtic ornamental touches which, paradoxically, often occur during harmonically gentle moments. Perhaps the most beautiful of these is to be heard in “Videns Dominus” (“When the Lord saw”). What the Lord saw were the weeping sisters of the late Lazarus. This moment when the voice of Jesus (traditionally rendered in a bass register) calls out to Lazarus in quiet, high, open harmonies was stunning. These few seconds alone were worth the rainy November journey to the Kirk.

Where Calton Consort meet MacMillan head on is in emotional range. While some scared works pursue the essential, singular mood of a verse, MacMillan’s settings can be comparatively volatile and this choir embrace and deliver that range admirably. Their “Data est mihi omnis potestas” (“All power is given unto me”) was a fine example. For those outside Scotland, puzzled by MacMillan’s title, it might be helpful to know that Strathclyde is the name of the area around Glasgow. The prefix strath- means “wide river valley” and the Clyde is that river.

The most virtuosic and ambitious item of the programme was Bax’s 1921 Mater Ora Filium (Mother pray thy son). Inspired by Bax’s hearing of Byrd’s Mass for five voices, it seems initially to be as influenced by Tudor polyphony as many of the works of his period. However, each repetition of the principal melody receives increasingly elaborate and demanding treatment. The zenith occurs in the final, adventurous Amen where a tonality sat-nav would be a must for survival in many choirs. The pitch control of the choir here was wonderful.

Dissonance of an altogether different nature informs John Tavener’s 1994 Song for Athene. A devotee of Eastern Orthodox Church music, Tavener is at home with the drone. A constant tonic F provides such strong gravity that close dissonance can comfortably be absorbed. This allows sounds which are simultaneously threatening and secure. It also renders oscillation between major and minor feel inflectional rather than structural. This is true up until the final line, when that paradoxically joyful embracing of the rewards of death that is the prerogative of the believer, is celebrated in a final major surge. At this point the 27-strong choir produced an enormous sound. Among their number was Jason Orringe who had handed the reins to assistant conductor and alto Elsie Orr. I imagine that a piece with little in the way of audibly perceivable beat such as this might make many debut conductors nervous. However, there was no sign of this in Orr’s calm navigation of what is now amongst the nation’s most known funeral music.

With works by Vasks, Barber and Whitacre programmed for early next year, Calton Consort show every indication of remaining the “go-to choir” for challenging and engaging music. In this era where many speculate about the future of live classical performance, I have to say that I very much like the Calton Consort’s format of an interval-free concert of about an hour in length. Not only does this leave time to meet friends of other musical persuasions later, but it seems, from my experience of this choir, to encourage satisfyingly tight programming.