tue 16/04/2024

National Youth Choir of Scotland, RSNO, Bell / Quasthoff, Amatis Trio, Edinburgh International Festival 2023 review - from the heights to the depths | reviews, news & interviews

National Youth Choir of Scotland, RSNO, Bell / Quasthoff, Amatis Trio, Edinburgh International Festival 2023 review - from the heights to the depths

National Youth Choir of Scotland, RSNO, Bell / Quasthoff, Amatis Trio, Edinburgh International Festival 2023 review - from the heights to the depths

Heavenly young voices, too much talking from a former bass-baritone

The National Youth Choir of Scotland outside the Philharmonie de ParisChristopher Bell

The National Youth Choir of Scotland have the most easily pronounceable acronym in Scottish music: everyone up here knows who you’re talking about when you mention NYCOS.

They’ve been going from strength to strength under their Artistic Director, Christopher Bell, and their Edinburgh International Festival concert with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (★★★★★) showcased two very different sides of their considerable skills.

The first thing you noticed in their performance of Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb was the clarity of their articulation of what is a very chewy text, but they turned this to their advantage in the impressive linear crescendo of the opening, before playfully turning over all the different elements of creation that were rejoicing in turn. A touch of angst entered their sound during the passage about hardships, before an ending of brilliant brightness, with focused Hallelujahs bringing out the ringing beauty of their sopranos.

Christopher BellFrom Britten’s clear sunshine the young singers then showed themselves to be equally comfortable in the dusky half-light of Duruflé’s Requiem, with its diaphanous textures and rippling word-painting. Here the choir’s sound was soft and warm while retaining its clarity, demonstrated most clearly in the Offertory with its sharply focused alto opening, leading into the urgent, unison drama of the judgement scenes, before ethereal sopranos hailed redemption. Bell (pictured left) conducted the music sympathetically, achieving the right balance of choir and orchestra even in the high drama of the Sanctus and Libera Me. The RSNO responded with just the right level of punch.

This is a work of meditative interior textures, more about violas and cellos than violins and brass, and they summoned up some beautiful sound painting to match the choir, nowhere more so than in the gorgeous effect with harp and celesta in the final In Paradisum. Paul Grant’s declamatory baritone and Catriona Morison’s lustrous mezzo-soprano only enhanced the beauty of both drama and sound. Intermittently through the piece, a small child was dancing in the aisle of the stalls, and who could blame her?

There was a singer but no singing in the Queen’s Hall the following morning. Thomas Quasthoff (pictured below) has retired from singing baritone, but he has been pressed into service as a narrator in several recent Edinburgh Festivals, most recently in Saturday evening’s Magic Flute. He was the reader for Monday’s concert with the Amatis Trio, a programme on the theme of Humanity in War, with a sequence of music interspersed with letters and diary entries, mostly from soldiers who served in the trenches of the First World War (★★★). Thomas QuasthoffI’m a big fan of intelligently curated programmes along these lines, but they’re dashed hard to pull off, and this one faltered on several fronts. The central one was that the connection between the words and the music often seemed rather arbitrary. A diary entry about the Russians was followed by some Shostakovich, a letter from the Suffragette Union was followed by (admittedly delightful) music by a German-American female composer. The connection was always there if you looked hard enough, but it often seemed a little laboured and not especially natural.

Quasthoff still has a voice that’s a delight to listen to, but his pronunciation of several English words was “eccentric” (or, perhaps, “unrehearsed”). Furthermore, far less would have done. In several cases the extended narrations went on for longer than the accompanying music.

The Amatis Trio played that music very beautifully, with two pieces by Schubert (the Notturno, moving in blissful thirds, and the slow movement from the Second Piano Trio, combining purposeful tread with lyrical keening) sounding particularly lovely. As a whole, though, this well-intentioned programme didn’t cohere.

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