Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955)
In Winter’s Arms - Seasonal Music
Wenceslas (2014/2016) [26:11]
Jesus, Springing (2010) [4:46]
My Perfect Stranger (2016) [14:58]
The Nine Gifts (2012) [4:16]
Gloria (2015) [15:44]
James Shaffran (baritone)
Julie Angelis Boehler (timpani)
Todd Fickley (organ)
Marian Rhian Hays (harp)
The Classical Brass Quintet
Canto Primo Youth Choir
rec. 2017, The Church of the Epiphany, Washington D.C. DDD
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD512 [65:55]
This CD celebrates Bob Chilcott’s working relationship with Choralis, a choral organisation based in Washington DC which includes not just the eponymous SATB choir but also three youth choirs. Chilcott was their composer in residence for a period of 18 months during which, among other things, they gave the world premiere of his Gloria, which here receives its first recording. The Gloria is a year-round hymn of praise but it more than justifies its inclusion in a Christmas programme as the song of the Angels on Christmas night.
When I interviewed Bob Chilcott for MusicWeb International back in 2013 he expressed a clear determination to write a setting of the Gloria and now, thanks to his association with Choralis, here it is. The work has one or two features in common with the splendid setting by John Rutter for which Chilcott expressed his great admiration when we spoke. Like Rutter, he’s scored his piece for SATB choir without soloists and the accompaniment is provided by the celebratory combination of brass, organ and timpani. The work is in four sections which play without a break. The first, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’ has a festive, bright and breezy opening, with punchy writing for the brass. The music slows for ‘Et in terra pax’. Actually, such a slowing is not marked in the vocal score but I’m sure that Gretchen Kuhrmann is right to ease the tempo at this point. Bouncy celebrations are the order of the day in the last part of the movement as Chilcott returns to his opening material. Two lyrical sections follow. ‘Domine Deus’ is slow and expressive. ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’ is marked Warm and lyrical and that’s just how the music sounds here. This is a typically melodious Chilcott invention and the singers of Choralis make a good job of it. High energy and irregular accents characterise the concluding section, ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’. This is a joyful, energetic movement though the last couple of pages are big and broad. This setting of the Gloria sounds like a lot of fun to sing and Choralis do it very well. However, this is quite a large choir and it would be interesting to hear the piece sung by a smaller choir, such as Commotio, who I heard recently in a fine all-Chilcott disc (review). A smaller ensemble might well bring even more tautness and incisiveness to the music.
All the other pieces on this disc are settings of words by two of Bob Chilcott’s favourite collaborators: the British poet, Charles Bennett (b 1954) and the American poet, Kevin Crossley-Holland (b 1941)
Bennett wrote the text for Wenceslas, which is also here recorded for the first time, I believe. The origin of the piece is interesting. It was written to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the John Lewis retail chain’s Oxford Street store in London. For the benefit of non-UK readers, the John Lewis Partnership is a substantial and very successful retail business which is owned not by shareholders but by its employees who number some 84,000 and who benefit from a share of the profits each year. Thus, John Lewis is a mutual business – sadly, nowadays one of a decreased number of such organisations in the UK. It’s rather fitting that an anniversary of a mutual business should be marked by a re-telling of the legend of Good King Wenceslas, which is itself something of a mutuality legend. The first performance of Chilcott’s anniversary work was given by a choir and orchestra drawn from John Lewis staff around the UK. Here it’s performed in a revised version in which the accompaniment is reduced to brass, organ and timpani.
Charles Bennett re-tells the Wenceslas story in verse, including stanzas of the traditional carol in several of the works eight sections, two of which are instrumental. In addition, Chilcott works into the music a good number of references to the well-known carol tune. The piece is designed – and works - as an entertainment, Throughout, the music is accessible and attractive and I think that the instrumental accompaniment is highly effective. In places the music is extrovert but, pleasingly, a thoughtful tone is struck several times. That’s especially true of the final movement which is, of course, a Happy Ending. Because the last two verses of the carol occur at the end – and the audience is invited to participate – I imagined, the first time I listened, that I would hear an upbeat, extrovert conclusion. But Bennett and Chilcott are more subtle than that: the last movement is musically warm and contented while Bennett’s words invite us to reflect upon a charitable, indeed life-saving, act on the part of the King. Earlier on there’s a movement ‘Thank you’ in which the lead is taken by the young singers of the Canto Primo Youth Choir. They have a characteristically touching Chilcott melody to sing and they do it very well. Yes, I admit, the music is on the sentimental side but Christmas is a season where sentiment has its place and the delightful, fresh singing of these youngsters disarms criticism.
Elsewhere the members of Choralis audibly relish their contributions and the instrumentalists play extremely well. There’s a prominent part for a solo baritone and James Shaffran is ideally suited to the music. His firm, clear and well-focused voice gives great pleasure. My only criticism of the performance is that even when following the text, I didn’t always find the diction of Choralis ideally clear; usually this was in the louder passages.
My Perfect Stranger may also be receiving its first recording. This is a very different piece; where Wenceslas is unashamedly an entertainment My Perfect Stranger is much more reflective. Chilcott has set a poem of the same title by Kevin Crossley-Holland as the central panel of a triptych. Crossley-Holland wrote additional words for a Prologue and Epilogue. It was composed for a BBC Singers concert in December 2016 – I remember hearing the premiere, which was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. The piece is scored for children’s choir, SATB choir and harp. The Prelude is quite subdued and reflective; the words describe the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. In the central section, which is the most substantial one, the Nativity story is related through a series of comments by various characters such as Mary, the Shepherds and the Magi. Here there are opportunities for a number of solos or small groups of singers and the main choir chips in with references to the words – but not the customary tune - of the Coventry Carol. The Epilogue returns us to the thoughtful mode as poet and composer reflect on the implications of the birth of Christ. My Perfect Stranger is far from a conventional Christmas piece but it’s a most interesting way of telling the Christmas story and I hope that choirs will take it up as an enterprising alternative to the standard carol concert fare.
Kevin Crossley-Holland supplied the words for both of the short works on the programme. The Nine Gifts is a fairly outgoing piece but I much prefer Jesus, Springing. This is the only work on the disc that I’ve heard before. Crossley-Holland’s words are excellent and thought-provoking and Bob Chilcott has clothed them in a trademark melody that is meditative and lyrical. The end result of this happy marriage of words and music is a touching little composition.
I got the distinct impression that everyone involved enjoyed making this disc. Gretchen Kuhrmann and her accomplished choirs serve Bob Chilcott’s music very well and with no little commitment, as do the instrumentalists. All the music is attractive and the programme offers some nice contrasts. My only concern, if I may call it that, is that many people may only play such a disc at Christmastime. For that reason, I hope a second recording of the Gloria will be made in due course because that’s a work for all seasons.