It seemed fitting that the Calton Consort's Tenth Anniversary Concert should also be a celebration of the genre they have made their own - contemporary music. Under the direction of Jason Orringe - conductor since its foundation - the choir offered a very varied programme of choral music by living composers, ranging in age from 41 to 103.

Calton Consort © Paul Gilling 2010
Calton Consort
© Paul Gilling 2010

In his excellent, concise programme notes, Orringe described the musical language of Morten Lauridsen (1943-) as "melodically and harmonically reassuring." This is certainly true of Les Chansons des Roses (1993) which beautifully sets poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. The first of its five chansons, 'En une seule fleur', was refreshingly brisk - the tantalising flitting through gorgeous harmonies demanding further hearings. Despite the pace, the Calton Consort's diction in this soft, easily smudged language was excellent, every syllable effortlessly reaching the rear pews. Contrastingly, the elusive balance between stillness and movement required in the Zen-like 'La Rose Complete' was wonderfully captured, as was the tenderness of the closing 'Dirait-on'.

The programme was nicely paced, with invigorating items followed by more soothing ones. Flanking the Lauridsen were two lively celebrations of music itself. The short, opening Cantibus Organis by English composer John Gardner (1917-) was a jaunty setting of the antiphon for the feast of St. Cecilia, performed with a lovely light touch. Musicians Wrestle Everywhere by Elliot Carter (1908-) sets the poem of the same name by the reclusive Emily Dickinson. More readily accessible that much of Carter's oeuvre, this celebratory piece was delivered with real joy.

Sleep (2000) by Eric Whitacre (1970-) houses two great ironies. One, which I didn't realise until reading the programme notes, was that the text we now know replaced a previous one, which had to be removed for copyright reasons. It seems then all the more remarkable that this piece hits the spot so convincingly. The second irony is that the loudest moment of the piece sets the words, "as I surrender unto sleep," suggesting, perhaps, that the key thing is the overpowering nature of sleep rather than the quiet joy of surrender. This performance was beautifully paced with a great sense of space.

Space - in the physical sense - was at the heart of what was, for me, the programme's most striking item, Topos (1995) by Daan Manneke (1939-). The titular idea of 'place' was initially evident when the choir abandoned their favoured gentle arc in favour of a deeper, more scattered formation. The effect on 'blend' was instantaneously striking. Other formations followed - not all static - as the piece explored the acoustics of the church and the effect of one note upon another, whether near or far. At one point the choir surrounded the audience. In its more dissonant moments I could feel the 'beats' caused by the close, clashing intervals of nearby singers and it was very impressive how each member held out against many distracting and tempting sounds within reach. In the last of four settings of Rimbaud, the choir reunited on the stage in a final 'hymn'. I couldn't help wondering what the troubled and troublesome poet would have made of this revolutionary setting of his words, and this dynamic performance, 137 years after laying down his pen at the age of 20 to pursue a life less quiet.

This excellent concert finished with a tender miniature by Louis Andriessen (1939-). The lovely Donne moi is at odds with the rest of his more edgy canon. I was delighted to hear this piece which, apart from being moving, serves as the perfect foil to those who believe much contemporary music avoids traditional notions of beauty through lack of ability to capture it.

If there was one slightly sad note to this celebratory evening it was that the audience, although not by any means small - and certainly not lacking in enthusiasm - was a slightly slender version of the Calton Consort's pew-bulging norm. True, it was an inclement evening but what can one expect for Edinburgh in December? This extraordinary choir deserves better than fair-weather friendship!