When I interviewed
Bob Chilcott recently for MusicWeb International he agreed that Christmas music occupies a special place in his affections. That should be no surprise given that he had two spells - eight years in all - in the King’s College, Cambridge choir during the Willcocks and Ledger eras. This, therefore, is someone who sang the latest Willcocks and Rutter arrangements and carols hot off the press - indeed, from copies of the composer’s manuscripts. So it’s perhaps inevitable that this leading choral composer should have written quite an amount of Christmas music from which Commotio here offers a generous selection, including eight first recordings. By the way, Naxos are incorrect to claim that status for The shepherds sing
: that was included on another disc of Chilcott’s choral music, The Seeds of Stars
, which was released last year (review
The core of Commotio’s programme is On Christmas Night
, a set of eight Christmas pieces which can be performed with readings interspersed between the musical numbers - we only hear the music on this occasion. Some extracts were included on an excellent Vasari Singers Christmas disc released in 2012 (review
). Commenting then, I said that I’d heard the complete set not long before on a promotional disc from Chilcott’s publishers, OUP, and that I’d found the complete set “a bit on the bland side and with a degree of ‘sameness’ about much of the music.” I now think that was a harsh judgement, although since several of the individual pieces are fairly gentle in character there’s something to be said for not hearing them as an unbroken sequence. I’m sure that one reason for my revised opinion of On Christmas Night
is the excellent performance by Commotio and the small instrumental ensemble. In several of the pieces Chilcott combines an original tune of his own with that of a favourite traditional carol - I won’t spoil things by saying which well-loved carols are included - and I think that this blending of old and new works very well. Chilcott’s original tunes are good ones, too. I like the one to which he sets ‘This is the truth sent from above’, which opens and closes the sequence, and also the melodies for ‘Sweet was the song’ and ‘O little town of Bethlehem’. There’s a vivacious setting of ‘Adam lay ybounden’ and the penultimate setting, ‘Rejoice and be merry’ is joyful and exuberant. To some extent On Christmas Night
is a case of old wine in new bottles; it’s most attractive and I now think it works very much better than I did when first I heard it.
The remainder of the programme features individual Christmas pieces. If I have a criticism it is that almost all of these are essentially gentle and reflective in character - only Les anges dans nos campagnes
, the French words that the English-speaking world knows as Angels from the realms of glory
, is lively; in fact that piece is positively exuberant. For the rest, gentleness is the prevailing mood and while each item is winningly attractive in its own right and many of them capture the quiet joy of Christmas a little more variety might have been welcome.
Four pieces are settings of words by one of Bob Chilcott’s favourite collaborators, the poet Charles Bennett. Of these I especially like The Advent Candle
, which has a simple, direct text set winningly for choir with a rippling harp accompaniment. Another Bennett setting, The Rose in the Middle of Winter
, was written to celebrate the 90th
birthday of Sir David Willcocks. It’s an attractive, light-footed setting and the delicate music surely shows Chilcott’s affection for his choirmaster from many years ago.
There’s a more overt King’s College connection with The Shepherd’s Carol
. With this carol Chilcott joined the ever-expanding list of prominent composers who have been commissioned to write for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. I rather think this has become one of the composer’s ‘hits’, judging by the number of times it is included on discs or live programmes of Christmas music. Rightly so, for it’s a lovely piece, mainly gentle but achieving a brief, ecstatic climax. Commotio sing it extremely well.
At Christmas 2012 many people in Britain were appalled at the murder of Alan Greaves who was the victim of a vicious, unprovoked assault as he walked to Midnight Mass. He died from his injuries some days later. Moved by this senseless crime Bob Chilcott wrote The Bethlehem Star
in memory of Mr Greaves. It’s an a cappella
setting of some lines by Gerald Manley Hopkins and I found it very affecting; the words are lovely and Chilcott has set them to disarmingly beautiful music.
Mention must also be made of Before the ice
, which ends the programme. This was written for the excellent St Louis Chamber Chorus, whose work I’ve greatly admired on a couple of discs (review review
). It was their conductor, Philip Barnes, who asked Chilcott to write a piece combining a poem by Emily Dickinson and the well-known Latin text, ‘O Magnum Mysterium’. It’s an unusual juxtaposition but it works. Chilcott sets the Dickinson words first and then combines it with the Latin text, essentially repeating each of Dickinson’s four stanzas, each one accompanied by one line of Latin sung by part of the choir. It’s very beautiful and at the end the radiant music to which ‘Alleluia’ is sung sets the seal on a fine and effective piece. Commotio give a super performance of it, their singing rapt and quietly intense.
In a review
of another all-Chilcott disc last year my colleague, Simon Thompson, said that Bob Chilcott’s music is “unashamedly tonal, relying on great tunes and beautiful textures for their effect. He has a sound that is clean, transparent, quite Romantic, and very popular.” I completely agree with that assessment and this excellent disc shows his gifts off to very good advantage. To Simon’s verdict I would add that Chilcott is an outstanding communicator through music; indeed, in my recent interview with him his passion for relating to people, both performers and audiences, through music was palpable. The music on this disc, which is unfailingly attractive, certainly communicates with the listener directly and strongly.
That communication with the listener is undoubtedly enhanced by the performances of Commotio. I’ve encountered this fine chamber choir already on disc, firstly in a CD devoted to the music of James Whitbourn (review
) and then in a very fine programme of music by Francis Pott (review
). On both occasions I was most impressed with their singing. Here, once again, they deliver the goods. Their singing is technically excellent and they consistently demonstrate complete commitment to the music. I was very interested to see that the producer of this disc is Nigel Short, the conductor of Tenebrae and a former colleague of Bob Chilcott in The King’s Singers. If it was daunting for Matthew Berry and his choir to have two highly experienced singers and choral conductors, one of them the composer, present at the sessions it doesn’t show; one rather suspects they found it stimulating. Short and his engineer Will Brown have ensured that the recorded sound is excellent: clear, atmospheric and beautifully balanced.
I think this delightful disc will enhance the musical side of Christmas for a lot of people.