RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955)
Requiem (2010)* [41:49]
Salisbury Motets (2009) [17:56]
Downing Service (2009) [7:23]
Pilgrim Jesus (2010) [2:12]
The Nine Gifts (2010) [4:25]
Jesus, springing (2010) [5:50]
*Laurie Ashworth (soprano); *Andrew Staples (tenor); Jonathan Vaughn (organ)
*The Nash Ensemble; Wells Cathedral Choir/Matthew Owens
rec. 25-26 May, 21-22 June 2011, Cathedral Church of St Andrew, Wells. DDD
Latin texts and English translations and English texts included
All première recordings
HYPERION CDA67650 [79:39]
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 slowly.
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.
An excellent collection of music by Bob Chilcott, including an important new Requiem.