It’s worth outlining Bob Chilcott’s background very briefly
since to do so may help to set in context the music on this
disc. As a boy he was a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge
during the era of Sir David Willcocks. Later he returned to
the choir as a Choral Scholar and subsequently spent twelve
years as a member of The King’s Singers before, in 1997, dedicating
himself to a full-time career as a composer and conductor. He’s
now had over 100 works published and he’s in demand as a conductor
all over the world. His conducting activities include a close
association with the BBC Singers, whose Principal Guest Conductor
he’s been since 2002. Indeed, it was that ensemble that made
what I think was the first disc devoted to Chilcott’s music,
Man I Sing (review).
With such a background it’s scarcely surprising that choral
music is such an important element in Chilcott’s composing output.
The influences of his past are readily apparent in much of the
music on this new Hyperion disc, especially the Requiem.
Indeed, the Requiem takes us right back to his roots
as a chorister at King’s for on Sir David Willcocks’ 1967 recording
of the Fauré Requiem, a staple of the catalogue ever
since it was first issued, who should we find as the treble
soloist in the ‘Pie Jesu’ but young Robert Chilcott (review).
In the booklet note Chilcott writes movingly about how much
that recording meant to him.
A listener to Chilcott’s Requiem will quickly identify
that it is in the lineage of reflective, consolatory settings
by such as Fauré and Duruflé. One other parallel strikes me
forcefully too, namely the Requiem by John Rutter,
which increasingly I regard as that composer’s finest piece
to date. It’s interesting that both Chilcott and Rutter have
scored their Requiems for accompaniment either by orchestra
or by a small instrumental ensemble. I’ve heard and sung the
Rutter many times and believe that the version for smaller forces,
with its greater intimacy, is very much the preferred option.
The ensemble version of the Chilcott is given here and though
I’ve not had an opportunity to hear the piece in its fuller
orchestral dress I rather fancy that the slender ensemble scoring,
which sounds tremendously effective here, will suit it best.
Incidentally, I’ve mentioned the influences of Fauré and Duruflé,
influences which are wholly beneficial and which in no way detract
from Chilcott’s originality. One other influence seems to hover
benignly in the background. Here, surely, is a man who knows
his Howells, even if Chilcott’s style is very different from
that of Howells.
The Requiem, which is dedicated to the memory of the
composer’s niece, who died at the tragically young age of twenty-three
while it was being written, is cast in seven movements. All
but one are settings of Latin texts from the Missa pro defunctis.
The exception is the sixth movement, ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the
secret of our hearts’, a setting of words from the 1662 Book
of Common Prayer with all the rich imagery and language that
one finds there.
The first movement, ‘Introit and Kyrie’, begins in a sombre
vein but the music becomes luminous at ‘et lux perpetua’. Later,
at ‘Te decet hymnus’ the music becomes more flowing and there’s
a key role for the solo tenor. The solo writing is light and
fluent and Andrew Staples, with his clear, easy tone is ideal
for this assignment. In the following movement, ‘Offertorio’,
both the organ writing and the closeness to plainchant of the
vocal melody evoke clear memories of the Duruflé Requiem.
Another finely delivered tenor solo is heard at ‘Hostias’.
The third movement is ‘Pie Jesu’ and, as the composer says,
it just had to feature a soprano solo. The music is marked “With
simplicity and stillness”. Laurie Ashworth sings her solo line
with lovely tone; like her tenor colleague, her voice seems
admirably suited to the music. I like also the mellow clarinet
interjections. The Sanctus is in 7/8 time and the irregularity
of this metre is excellent in that it imparts energy and a sense
of the dance to the music. The present performance has just
the right amount of bounce and brio. The Agnus Dei, marked “Still
and gentle”, sees the return of the tenor soloist. In this movement
Chilcott makes significant – and effective – use of triplets
as an expressive device. The scoring is delectably light – for
the most part the choral contributions are left to the trebles
and altos. The one movement in English, ‘Thou knowest, Lord’,
is a highlight, I think. The music is slow and entreating. When
(at 2:44) the tenors and basses sing “O holy and merciful Saviour,
thou most worthy Judge eternal” it’s the start of a very moving
passage, the music complementing the majestic words splendidly.
I love the cascade, rippling downwards through the voices on
the words “to fall” just before the end. The concluding ‘Lux
aeterna’ reprises some music from the opening. This is radiant,
gentle and consoling music. The last word is left to the soprano
soloist, who has a simple but effective rising and falling phrase.
I’ve been keen to hear this piece for some time and it’s made
a strong impression on me. The first performance of Requiem
was given in Oxford on 13 March 2010. By sheer coincidence I
found that I had done most of my detailed work on reviewing
the disc exactly two years later to the day. I understand that
the work has already been heard in twelve countries and I’m
not surprised. This excellent first recording should bring it
to an even wider audience and I can easily see it becoming firmly
established in the repertoire. Matthew Owens leads a dedicated,
eloquent performance. I was interested to note that in the vocal
score the duration of the work is given as approximately 35
minutes. This performance is several minutes longer than that
but at no time did I feel that the music was being taken too
The four Salisbury Motets come from a larger-scale work, Salisbury
Vespers. This ten-movement work was written in 2009 for
a performance in Salisbury Cathedral by some 500 singers. The
full ensemble includes a main chorus, chamber choir and children’s
chorus. The four motets are designed to be sing by the chamber
choir and to judge by the score contain some of the most demanding
choral writing in the work, which I’ve ever heard in full. The
motets are for different times in the church calendar. Thus
we have a Christmas motet, ‘I sing of a mayden’, which is a
lovely piece, marked “Gentle and expressive”, which features
a simple, winning melody. ‘When to the temple Mary went’ is
Johannes Eccard’s well-known Presentation text. Here Chilcott
mixes 4/4 and 7/8 time signatures very effectively to impart
a restless feeling to the music. ‘Lovely tear of lovely eye’
is a setting of an anonymous fourteenth century text concerned
with the mother of the crucified Christ. The music is eloquent
but my reservation is that the fourfold repetition of the refrain,
once after each verse, prolongs the piece a little too much.
Finally, ‘Hail, star of the sea most radiant’ is a mainly exuberant
song of praise in which the choir is divided into as many as
six parts at times in addition to a two-part semi chorus. There’s
some fine music, well-conceived for voices, in these motets
and I think it’s a good thing to extract them for separate performance.
The Downing Service is a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis,
written for the Cambridge college of that name. I particularly
liked the ‘Nunc’, which is aptly described in the notes as a
“slow moving epic crescendo”. The final three items, though
published separately, I believe, go together quite naturally.
They’re Christmas pieces and they grew out of a commission for
one carol from the celebrated Minneapolis-based choral director,
Philip Brunelle. The commission was for a setting of a poem
by Kevin Crossley-Holland
(b. 1941) but when Chilcott got hold of a volume of Crossley-Holland’s
poems he was so impressed that he was inspired to write three
pieces. The first two are lively, energetic pieces but though
I enjoyed them very much it was Jesus, springing that
really caught my attention. The words are thoughtful and offer,
as do the other two poems that Chilcott has set, an interesting
and different slant on the Nativity. In fact the words of Jesus,
springing are rather moving, as is the music to which Bob
Chilcott has set them. Here, as so often in the music on this
disc, he comes up with a simple, direct and very natural-sounding
melody that is memorable in its own right and which fits the
text like a glove.
On the evidence of the music by Bob Chilcott that I’ve heard
and sung over the last few years he has that precious gift of
being able to communicate effectively and very directly with
his audiences and with those who are performing his music, yet
he achieves this with no sense of “dumbing down” or condescension.
He also has the ability to write expertly for singers and to
challenge them without making unreasonable demands on them.
There is genuine substance to his music and though I imagine
that anyone buying this disc will enjoy the music I suspect
that they’ll also be moved by it.
Matthew Owens and his fine Wells choir have made a
series of recordings over the last few years, which have
been devoted to music of our own time. I’ve heard all of these
recordings and I’ve never failed to be impressed by the enterprise
of the repertoire choices, by the excellence of the performances
and by the evident commitment of Owens and his singers – not
to mention organist Jonathan Vaughn – to the music they perform.
This Chilcott disc sits proudly and securely within what I might
perhaps call the Wells tradition. Once again the Hyperion engineers
have produced excellent results in Wells Cathedral and the documentation
is up to the label’s usual high standards.
I’ve enjoyed this disc greatly and I hope that many other collectors
will derive as much pleasure from it.