In most concert listings, premières seem to be thrown in as a one-off to offset a relatively risk-free billing. In this Cheltenham Music Festival concert, this was not the case. With no less than five premières in an evening of seven choral works, those present could be assured that they were hearing something new. The programme choice was engaging and enlightening, giving insight on different ways that the human voice can be used as an instrument.

BBC Singers © John Wood
BBC Singers
© John Wood

The Cheltenham College Chapel provided an intimate setting with outstanding acoustics, perfect for listening to choral music. The layout of the building meant we were sat sideways, but it was worth the sacrifice for the sound quality of the performance space. The BBC Singers, led by conductor David Hill were meticulous in their approach to the score and subtleties in the music. There was little to no movement on stage and the performance was understated in a way that made it even more spectacular. The singers put full effort into creating the perfect sound by contorting and flexing their faces yet barely moving the rest of their bodies. It was as though we were sitting in on a recording session but were completely invisible, the focus being entirely on what could be heard.

The most visual piece of the concert was The Dordrecht Humaphone by young Finnish composer Lauri Supponen. Commissioned for this year's Cheltenham Music Festival, the composition is based on a fantasy illustration by Mikko Metsähonkala. The drawing depicts an instrument comprised of humans (the humaphone) and two characters named Claucus and Trube who are repairing the vocal chords. It was staged with two soloists, tenor Edward Goater and baritone Edward Price, who sang a libretto based on a dialogue between Claucus and Trube. The piece contained hissing and slides, along with mesmerising solos painting the picture with music. It was fascinating to hear how the music incorporated ideas of a machine made out of human voices and the repair process. It extended far beyond the ordinary and demonstrated a huge amount of skill in performance, direction and composition.

This is not to say that any of the other pieces were less challenging, though: Jonathan Harvey’s Marahi contained two sections named ‘Animal Realm’ where singers recreated noises of various animals on a farm, accompanied by rhythmic chants. On paper it sounds as though it would be a demand on the ear, but in concert it was very effective.

The highlight and also the other Finnish contribution of the evening was the UK première of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Missa a cappella. The Gloria was majestic and powerful and the BBC Singers reflected that with a huge force of a sound. This contrasted with the Credo that followed, which was rhythmic and full of tense energy. Originally this had been listed to be performed at the end of the concert, but one more piece was sung. It was almost too much to hear the première of John Tavener’s Unto the End of the World afterwards. It set instrumentalists from Endymion a challenge, as the percussionist Oliver Lowe had to follow David Hill’s beat from the balcony in the back of the chapel with a gong.

Despite some fairly challenging scores, the BBC Singers and the members of Endymion presented a thoroughly enjoyable and fascinating evening of new music. Three of the composers were in the audience, which put pressure on the performance, but they all seemed content when going up to shake the conductor’s hand and thanking the singers. There should be more concerts like this.