Outside Edge: Viscount Dilhorne, the singing barrister

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The Independent Culture
COME the revolution, the aristocracy is going to have to make itself useful, or entertaining at least. John Mervyn Manningham-Buller, second Viscount Dilhorne, has contingency plans. As John Dilhorne (it's pronounced 'Dylan'), he has recently released his debut, self-financed CD, Songs of Glinka and Tchaikovsky (Capriole). And very impressive it is. The publicity cites a review which labelled him 'the English Chaliapin', which may be a tad hyperbolic, given that Chaliapin is widely considered the greatest bass this century: but the Viscount's voice is certainly that of a gifted amateur. And the aristocracy is rather good at the gifted amateur thing.

Actually, Dilhorne already has a proper job, as a barrister. Singing, he admits, can only be a hobby: but 'I approach the music totally seriously. I have the best of both worlds, enjoying a hobby to that extent and being able to enjoy the law as well. I do vocal exercises every day, usually in the car coming to Temple. I have a tape with the exercises on. The secret is never to press, to let it blow forth, give it space and lots of air.'

No doubt the advice works for barristers as well, although he is quick to point out that his practice covers such unglamorous areas as land law and inheritance tax. It would be wrong to suggest that John Dilhorne's title and job allow him to indulge passing whims, like recording his voice. Like many amateurs, he has worked for years with amateur choirs - notably the London Welsh Male Voice Choir - and peripatetic opera companies like Beaufort Opera and City Opera. And he regularly performs as a soloist, 'usually for charities, although sometimes I'm paid if the concert is sponsored - and I'm always very happy to be paid'.

The recording came about, he says, because 'my wife said she'd love to have some permanent record of my singing, so we did the recording in December 1992. Then the Bar got in the way of dealing with things, like finding the right person to do the artwork; then the floppy disc went wrong with the Cyrillic alphabet. In the end it took a year to come out. Now I'm trying to recover some of the costs.'

Dilhorne has a box of copies at his chambers, and sells as many as possible through personal contact. The rest go through the usual trade channels. Response has been positive: 'Victor Borovsky, who wrote a wonderful biography of Chaliapin, and who is Russian voice coach at the Royal Opera House, is very critical, and he said, 'After the first few bars, which I listened to critically, I found I was sitting back and enjoying it like a professional performance.' That was tremendously pleasing. And I'm thrilled with the disc - that sounds terrible] I listen to it, and I haven't got bored with it.'

Nor should he, for the voice is clean, rich, unforced, and with a pleasing lightness at the top of its range. What's more, the Russian accent is convincing, a fact which Dilhorne attributes to learning the language at Sandhurst. If the CD sells well enough, there may be a follow-up, but John Dilhorne isn't going to give up his day job, nor his seat in the House of Lords, where he sits on the Conservative benches - although, as he says, 'One doesn't always agree with what the Government is doing, and that is a very good safety valve.' Musicians as legislators? There are precedents.

'Songs of Glinka and Tchaikovsky' (Capriole) is distributed by Gamut (0353 662 366)