While Chaucer’s morality story of the rooster Chanticleer and the fox might have little to do with tonight’s concert, the meaning of the name Chanticleer (literally, clear-singing) was very apt. A hugely successful all-male vocal ensemble, Chanticleer is currently touring Europe, from Dublin to Moscow. Considered “an orchestra of voices”, the vocal range within Chanticleer is enormous ranging from three versatile male sopranos all the way down to two sonorous basses.

Chanticleer © Lisa Kohler
Chanticleer
© Lisa Kohler

The theme of tonight’s concert in Dublin was “She said, he said” an innovative programming challenge that sought to balance male and female compositions starting chronologically with early polyphony right up to the present day. Given the paucity of female composers before the 20th century, this was quite a challenge for the first half. Hildegard von Bingen and Fanny Mendelssohn were of course on the list. The sacred motets by Palestrina and Victoria were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, while the secular songs tended to address a beloved woman. Barber’s song and Hackman’s “Wait” fantasy before the interval were both based on poems by Emily Dickinson. The second half featured contemporary female composers such as Stacy Garrop, Ann Ronnell and Alice Parker, interspersed with love songs, arrangements of pop/indie songs and traditional Spirituals.

Chanticleer’s stage presence was eye-catching in its precision and its elegance. The swift organisation into diverse positions after each piece and the bowing were visually arresting. However, it was the mellifluous singing with its seamless blending of voices and effortless polyphony in Palestrina’s Gaude gloriosa that was more astounding still. Standing in a circle, without a conductor, there was a deep communication between each singer, as if each knew the other’s score as well as his own and where his line fitted into the overall structure. In Victoria’s Regina caeli laetare the alleluias were bubbling over with joyful exuberance as the various strands of melodies intertwined and soared from one side to another. It was Bingen’s O Frondens virga which made the spine tingle as at first, the plaintive single melody started, coming, as it were, from another millennium. It was joined by a haunting pedal note in fifths and as a second, third and fourth voice crept in, the volume and intensity increased ever so gradually. The fugal echoing of “ad erigendum nos” at the end was simply fascinating. The last of the sacred motets was Guerrero’s Ave Virgo Sancissima, which had the same pellucid quality to its polyphony.

The change of style, from reverent to bawdy, was brilliantly captured by the vocal ensemble. Both Gabrieli’s Tirsi morir volea and Monteverdi’s Ohimè se tanto amate madrigals are masterpieces of understated eroticism and Chanticleer brought out this element in a subtle, witty manner. There was a delightfully suggestive pause after “moro” (“I die” – a ribald Renaissance euphemism) in Gabrieli’s madrigal, while the descending scales in Monteverdi’s at the word “Ohimè” (sighing) was done to great effect.

Leaping from Renaissance polyphony to German romanticism demands a volte-face in both technique and texture, a challenge Chanticleer handled with an ease that belied its complexity. Two songs by the Mendelssohn siblings – Fanny and Felix – showed a fascinating similarity of style with a superiority of composition demonstrated here by the sister. Chanticleer’s rendition of Brahms’ Nachtwache I had an intimate quality to it, as the staccatos on “zitternd” (trembling”) were imbued with an ethereal quality.

Where Chanticleer impressed most in this first half was in Ravel’s Trois Chansons. The mercurial Nicolette skipped and pranced in a way that left her breathless, and the audience too as we marvelled at such clarity of rapid diction. In an instant this gaiety was gone to be replaced by one of sadness as the ensemble sung of France going to war. Chanticleer’s shading and evocative dynamics eschewed sentimentality achieving instead an infinite tenderness. The rapidity of the Ronde was nothing short of brilliant with its will-o-the-wisp like dynamics and phrasing.

The second half showcased the rich variety of styles Chanticleer is at home with: styles as diverse as a merry Russian love song, traditional spirituals or the fine Michael McGlynn arrangement of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. While every song deserves its own plaudits, I will list only two that were particularly noteworthy. American contemporary composer Stacy Garrop’s Give me Hunger is built on contrasts, reflecting the visceral anger at life’s injustices and the contrasting gentleness at the possibility of love. Chanticleer expressed the fury with a palpable energy that was as engrossing as it was frightening, as they executed harsh micro-intervals and complex chromatic lines. The achingly raw harmonies perfectly encapsulated the mood of a “little love”. The traditional spiritual Sit down servant featured some of the most astounding soprano improvisations I have heard from woman or man, for that matter. “She said / he said” – I’ll say!

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