The revival of the traditional carol which had begun during the later part of the nineteenth century reached its apotheosis in the 1920s. This was marked by the publication of the Oxford Book of Carols
guided by the editorial hand of Vaughan Williams. This not only made available for the first time a great many folk carols from across Europe but also commissioned or published a number of new carol settings by major composers. Indeed for a period the Christmas carol became something close to a commercial money-spinner. Peter Warlock, finding himself short of money for a binge, would raise the necessary cash by the production of a carol for the Christmas market. The results included not only such roisterous gems as Tyrley Tyrlow
and The sycamore tree
but also an absolute masterpiece such as Bethlehem Down
In recent years the ‘commercial’ side of the carol has perhaps best been represented by John Rutter, whose numerous carol settings may lie on the lighter side of his vast choral output. They have made their way into the repertoire of choirs across the globe. The more ‘serious’ side of the modern carol has also continued to flourish, and for their annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
a series of new works have been commissioned from King’s College Cambridge. The earliest of the pieces on this disc of carols by Bob Chilcott comes from this very tradition, The Shepherd’s Carol
(track 7), and very beautiful it is too.
One thing that must be immediately observed is the sheer variety of the music that we have here on a very full disc. This includes not only Christmas carols but Advent pieces too. The variety of the accompaniments, running from a cappella
works to those with organ and various other instruments. The manner in which these are interspersed totally obviates any suspicion of sameness, and the sense of contrast makes for continual interest. The central and most substantial work is the cycle On Christmas night
written for a choir in Texas (tracks 8-15). This juxtaposes traditional carol melodies with new settings of mediaeval and other texts with an elaborate accompaniment of remarkable richness. The only problem with the piece arises from the fact that many of the original melodic lines have had perforce to be conceived with a view to their combination in counterpoint with the traditional tunes. This sometimes results in a certain lack of profile in the new additions - the treatment of O little town of Bethlehem
, for example, with its slightly awkward rhythms, does not have the easy flow of the setting of the same words by Walford Davies or the Forest Green
arrangement of Vaughan Williams which is quoted in the course of the new work.
Following on the Oxford Book of Carols
tradition, Chilcott sets a number of modern poems by various authors. Four of these are by Charles Bennett. I must confess that I find the style of these pieces too frequently grates by virtue of their faux naïveté
which seeks to emulate the idiom of traditional mediaeval models. The old verses were not always works of great literary merit but the use of end rhyme by Bennett is sometimes all too predictable. One is grateful for the appearance of assonance rather than strict rhyme in the setting of Gifts for the child of winter
(track 21). Rather better is the treatment of a marvellously dark poem by Kevin Crossley-Holland in The heart-in-waiting
(track 5). Best of all is the treatment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s The Bethlehem Star
written in memory of Alan Greaves, the Sheffield organist murdered at Christmas in 2012 (track 18). Hopkins was a poet of the Victorian era, but his stylistic innovations still sound modern. Chilcott’s treatment of them has a heartfelt intensity. The disc concludes with an absolutely peerless setting of Emily Dickinson’s Before the ice
concluding with O magnum mysterium
, the longest single item on the CD with gentle bruising harmonies
There are also some upbeat items, such as the setting of the French carol Les anges dans nos campagnes
, which has the perkiness and spark of Poulenc especially in Richard Pearce’s delightfully lightweight organ accompaniment. There are some other gems too, notably The shepherds sing
, a setting of George Herbert which surpasses the setting by Vaughan Williams in one of the weaker movements of his Christmas cantata Hodie.
The use of the saxophone here is particularly evocative, somewhat in the style of Jan Garbarek’s similar treatments of mediaeval and renaissance polyphony but less improvisatory. The arrangement of Gruber’s Silent night
, on the other hand, is pretty straightforward and lacks the pastoral charm of the original scoring with guitar. The setting of Christina Rossetti’s Mid-winter
is a brave challenge to more familiar treatments of the text of “In the bleak mid-winter”. That said, one cannot really expect this setting to displace the well-established versions by Holst and Darke.
There are nine première recordings on this disc, and one cannot imagine them being given a more auspicious baptism. The presentation is of Naxos’s best, with a long note by the composer and full texts including the copyright poems. This makes one wonder why other companies in the bargain bracket cannot do the same. In his interview with John Quinn, Bob Chilcott talked of his delight in this recording. He has every right to be proud of it, as have the singers of Commotio.
For those looking for a Christmas disc that is out of the ordinary this must be close to the head of the queue.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
And another review ...
John Quinn has already reviewed this disc in these pages, and all I can do is add my voice of agreement to this really lovely collection of Christmas music.
What makes Chilcott’s music so successful - and, gratifyingly, so popular - is a wonderful gift for melody. All of his carols have easily memorable tunes. They’re not necessarily always catchy, but they have an ability to go straight to that section of the brain that enjoys a good tune! Perhaps even more importantly, however, he has an uncanny skill at harmony. Lush chords hang in lavish suspensions and resolve in ways that make you think they couldn't go any other way. It is that more than anything else that lends his carols their particular, distinctive sound. He goes for clarity when he needs to (e.g. The Shepherds Sing
), but it's the inner textures of, say, Song of the Crib
or The Heart in Waiting
that keep me coming back for more.
Many of the carols on the disc are unaccompanied, but he uses instruments beautifully when he chooses to, for example the harp in The Advent Candle
and the subtle saxophone in The Shepherds Sing
. The harp is also used to add some very attractive syncopations to his setting of In the Bleak Midwinter
The central sequence, On Christmas Night
, seeks to re-tell the Christmas story through its choice of carols, mostly familiar words to new settings. It works a treat, and I especially liked the moments where Chilcott's new melodies fuse with and refer to the better known tunes, forming a lovely dialogue between old and new. The unfamiliar tunes caused me to reassess the words of carols you know so well and, speaking personally, it drew me into deeper contemplation of the mystery of Christmas, and that's a high compliment to pay to any carol composer.
He has a pleasingly diverse range of texts, too, from traditional words to contemporary poets, stopping off at George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins on the way.
He may not win many awards for originality, and perhaps his music tends to remind you of others: the use of the harp inevitably makes one think of Britten's Ceremony of Carols
, and Jan Garbarek springs to mind with the use of the saxophone. Perhaps the most obvious comparison is to the music of John Rutter; but what does it matter when his music gives such unalloyed pleasure?
The performances are exactly right, too, with an entirely sympathetic choice of choir and director, and the warm, enveloping sound of Keble College Chapel fits it like a comfortable pair of slippers. In short, a winner. This is a disc to listen to with the tree lit up and a cup of Christmas cheer in your hand.
Previous review: John Quinn