Although the Choir of King’s College Cambridge is one of the best known in the world, its fame largely rests on the recordings and broadcasts made in the fabulous acoustic of the 15th century Chapel. One of the principal challenges facing the young musicians in their tour of Australia, therefore, would be coping with less reverberant spaces. The Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, which John Malkovich recently compared unfavourably to an airplane hangar, would provide a particularly acute test. Under the direction of Stephen Cleobury, the choir surmounted the difficulties of the space and delivered a polished programme in which vocal blend was never an issue.

The group famously comprises only male members: boy sopranos (who attend a special Collegiate school) and male undergraduate choral scholars. The proportions were no doubt carefully worked out to allow for basic sonic equality between the parts: 17 choristers singing treble, four (adult) male counter-tenors, five tenors and six basses, with plenty of subdivisions when required. The adult-child division was also apparent in their dress: the men wore black tie, while the boys wore their school uniforms, and all had short gowns. The discipline of the group was immaculate, and their ensemble skills and intonation were above reproach. In spite of all the careful choreography of sound and visuals, there were a few pleasingly dissident score covers in evidence.

The first half mainly focussed on British and Australian repertoire, with a side trip to Italy for Palestrina’s Dum complerentur. Parry’s Hear my Words, Ye People opened the programme, an effective piece of Victoriana which allowed the ear to accustom itself to the space. The solos in this anthem were well managed, and the final section “O praise ye the Lord” (now frequently encountered as a separate hymn) was given with gusto. In Byrd’s Sing Joyfully which followed and in the motet by Palestrina, both a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment), the choir’s enunciation of the text was praiseworthy. 

The three Australian pieces were commissions for the choir’s annual Christmas service of Nine Lessons and Carols. Sculthorpe’s 1988 carol made use of lots of motion in parallel fifths in the outer sections, often a deliberate signifier of the primitive. The contrasting middle section had a lyrical alto melody pitted against shimmering chords in the lower parts, with floated cries of “Awake” from the boys. Brett Dean’s work (2007) began off with clusters à la Eric Whitacre, and required a top B from the choristers, which was slightly thin in tone. There were some lovely gradations within a very soft dynamic in this number. The third piece by Carl Vine was the most recent (2012) and in some ways the most traditional, with phrases often resolving onto a traditional chord. Like Dean, Vine exploited the special sound of the choir by writing a short solo for boy soprano.

Britten’s popular Hymn to St. Cecilia finished the first half. The fleet passagework at “I cannot run” sounded effortless, and the solos imitating instruments were all strong. Most impressive of all, perhaps, was the treble’s solo “O dear white children”, where the purity of sound made it particularly affecting.

The organist (playing far aloft at the Concert Hall’s console) rejoined proceedings for the second half, which was entirely taken up by Faure’s Requiem. At the beginning of the Sanctus there were brief coordination issues between instrument and singers, but this quickly sorted itself out. Given the colouristic possibilities of the organ, the full orchestral version was not much missed. For me, the accompaniment at the words “Hosanna” was too detached, given the weighty orchestral equivalent. The choir was especially controlled when singing softly, with memorable moments such as the thread of sound on the final note of the Introit, and the ghostly echo of the opening music during the Agnus Dei movement. The baritone solo in the Hostias was particularly good, while the treble in the Pie Jesu began well but seemed (unwarrantedly)to lose confidence towards the end.

The encore enthusiastically demanded by the audience, Mozart’s evergreen Ave Verum Corpus, was preceded by a slightly awkward minute’s wait on the organist, who disappeared offstage to retrieve his music. That this was at all noteworthy says volumes for the professionalism of the young singers: the tiny treble on the right of the second row in particular could have served as a model for how to follow the conductor with one’s eyes. Perhaps the only aspect open to criticism was the choir’s level of engagement with the subject matter. True, this is an English chapel choir, and neither preceding adjective sets up expectations of emotional exuberance. Nonetheless, when away from the stalls, the members might relax a little and show that they care about this music. It would be a shame if their proficiency came at the expense of a sense of personal involvement.