Music review: Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, Greyfriars Kirk

YOU’VE got to admire the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union.

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL
Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL

Edinburgh Royal Choral Union

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

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Rating: ****

Their month-before-Christmas offering was decidedly unseasonal, and nothing if not ambitious – a big, meaty, pretty uncompromising new piece by Edinburgh-born US-resident composer Thea Musgrave – The Voice of Our Ancestors, getting its Scottish premiere – which dealt with nothing less than profound questions of life, death and everything in between using texts from ancient civilisations. And written for enormous forces, too: four solo singers, brass quintet, organ, and the ERCU augmented by boys from Edinburgh Academy, all parading around Greyfriars’ interior to assume different positions for contrasting portions.

In truth, it was probably a bit too much to take in properly – magnificent as spectacle, but hard not to think you were missing quite a lot of detail in Musgrave’s doggedly serious choral writing. And although the menfolk sounded a bit thin – and a bit unconvinced – the women singers gave Musgrave’s teeming creation exactly the enthusiastic, theatrical delivery it needed, under driven, compelling, precise conducting from ERCU’s director Michael Bawtree.

A special mention for the exceptional players of Scottish quintet BrassLab, too, who blended with Simon Hogan’s organ in some imposing, striking sonorities, and provided plenty of rugged virtuosity on their own.

There was more theatricality in the concert’s concluding piece, the likeably Adams-esque The Far Theatricals of Day, similarly large-scale settings of Emily Dickinson by Jonathan Dove, even if Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia really needed more power from ERCU’s tenors and basses. A daring adventure, nonetheless, and a remarkable achievement.