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Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955)
Five Days that Changed the World [19:24]
The Miracle of the Spring [14:08]
The Angry Planet – an Environmental Cantata [46:48]
Gemma Beeson (piano), Markus Gruett (timpani), Olivia Robinson (soprano), Eleanor Minney (alto), Emma Tring (soprano), Nigel Carman (percussion)
BBC Singers, The Bach Choir, The Young Singers, London Youth Choir, Finchley Children’s Group/David Hill
rec. 2015, BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London
English texts included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD422 [33:39 + 46:48]

Having heard and sung quite a lot of choral music by both composers I think that Bob Chilcott and John Rutter share a number of characteristics. One is that the music often sounds quite “easy” on the surface – no doubt because it’s accessible in style – when in fact it’s often quite tricky to perform, and certainly requires considerable skill to perform well. Both also have a seemingly natural aptitude for writing music that people want to sing and hear. I experienced quite a powerful reminder of these attributes in Chilcott’s music some three years ago when I took part in a day-long workshop that he ran on his Requiem. Over two hundred amateur singers of varying degrees of experience gathered together. I’m pretty sure that the music was new to the majority yet their engagement with the music was soon palpable and the workshop was characterised by great enthusiasm on the part of all who took part. The music certainly presented some technical challenges but these were not sufficiently daunting as to create a barrier to participation and enjoyment.

I was reminded of that experience as I listened to the pieces on these CDs. The three works concerned are all accessible in style while clearly presenting quite a few challenges to the participants. However, these three pieces all have other things in common. For one thing they have been designed specifically to involve young singers and to get them working alongside adult musicians. Furthermore, each of the three scores addresses a serious issue in a way that actively engages with the younger participants while in no way patronising them. All this can only be a good thing. When I interviewed Bob Chilcott for MusicWeb International not long ago he talked with great enthusiasm about his work writing for young singers. He also discussed his frequent collaboration with the poet, Charles Bennett, who has furnished the texts for all three works recorded here.

Actually this performance of The Miracle of the Spring doesn’t use young voices though it was written for such a group, namely the choir of Magdalen College School, Oxford. Here it’s sung by the BBC Singers. The score includes percussion parts, originally designed to be played by members of the choir. I like very much the sparing use that Chilcott makes of the instruments, which means that when they are involved their contribution is all the more ear-catching.

The five Charles Bennett poems concern the subject of water and in his booklet note Chilcott writes that when this was proposed the idea appealed to him because he’d recently been in the USA where the subject of water shortages was very much on the agenda. The music is very engaging. The second setting, ‘The Source of the Spring’, is simple, gentle and touching; it’s here that the two soloists make their contributions. The last three settings follow each other without a break. In the third and fourth movements the use of log drums to emphasise the lively rhythms is most effective. Towards the end of the fourth movement the music slows and becomes more thoughtful in tone. This proves to be an ideal bridge to the final setting where this mood is continued. The fifth poem, ‘The Voice of Water’ is in effect a hymn to water and its healing, refreshing properties which are so vital to our everyday lives.

Five Days that Changed the World was composed for the 2013 Worcester International Festival for Young Singers and its first performance, in Worcester Cathedral, was reviewed by my Seen and Heard colleague, Roger Jones. The idea is ingenious. Bennett and Chilcott decided to devise a five-movement piece in which each movement deals with an event on a particular date that was momentous in the evolution of civilisation. So the poems concern the invention of printing; the abolition of slavery; the first powered flight by the Wright brothers; the discovery of penicillin; and the first man in space. It’s a marvellous, universally appealing idea, especially as the first performance was to be given by a choir of some 400 young singers representing 11 countries. In this work an adult choir is involved and the youth choir contributes to three of the five movements. All the movements are very successful. However, three made a particularly strong impression on me. The poem that discusses the abolition of slavery is set to music that’s very typical of this composer: it’s slow, harmonically warm and very thoughtful. The main material is sung by the adult choir and the young singers have an engaging countermelody. The piece is simple and sincere; I found it touching. By contrast, as you might expect, the exploits of the Wright brothers are described in energetic and very positive music. Arguably, Chilcott reserves the best till last. In the slow-paced music that sets Bennett’s words about the first manned space flight he achieves a sense of wonder that is entirely appropriate to the subject.

The Angry Planet was a commission from the Bach Choir, first performed at the 2012 Proms. The idea, including the title and the involvement of young singers, was David Hill’s. He proposed, in Chilcott’s words, a piece “on the subject of the fragility of our world and on our need to respect and care for our environment.” This score, lasting some 45 minutes, for unaccompanied choirs, is the result.

Once again the words are by Charles Bennett and this is an appropriate point to praise his contribution to all three works. His texts have been designed to appeal to young people yet there is not the slightest hint of condescension. Instead, his poems are clearly expressed in direct well-imagined language. The various poems concern serious issues but there’s no grandstanding rhetoric in them. I think that in each work the texts serve their purpose admirably.

The Angry Planet is concerned with a forest at night over a twelve-hour period from 6pm. Its four sections each relate to a three-hour segment of time, though I hasten to add there’s no narrative of time passing; instead we are invited to observe and reflect upon the forest at various points in the night. More to the point, we observe a threatened forest because the primary thrust of Bennett’s poems is the damage that man has done and may continue to do to the natural environment of the forest. This is driven home at several points in the score by the youth choir who “in an exaggerated spoken style”, as the composer describes it, enunciate the names of various animal species which are either at risk of extinction or which have passed the point of no return.

The children’s choir fulfils a different function. At several points in the score they sing, in unison, what Chilcott refers to as “simple songs in which they play the role of hardy weeds and flowers that, despite so such loss, have managed to survive.” In this recording the children sing with winning assurance. Their singing is fresh, confident and keen of tone. Though Chilcott doesn’t say so, I suspect that they may also represent the Voice of Innocence. The children that take part here do themselves enormous credit by their singing. Let it not be forgotten that although some of the adult singers are usually providing an “accompaniment” to what they sing all the children’s music is unaccompanied yet their tuning never falters.

I’m not going to describe the work in detail; that would take too long. But I will single out some highlights. At the very start – the forest at 6pm – Chilcott’s dense, slow harmonic writing for the main choir evocatively suggests the impenetrable gloom of a forest. The next movement is harshly rhythmical, the rather jagged writing underlining the message of Bennett’s poem, ‘As if’ which reminds us of the harm we can do to the natural world simply to provide for our everyday needs, such as warmth.

It seems to me that the third movement, which covers the time-span between midnight and 3am, is the heart of the work. The first section, ‘Midnight’, includes an important part for solo soprano. Emma Tring has an attractive tone and she sings her plaintive lines expressively. Sadly, I found her words to be well-nigh unintelligible if I didn’t follow closely in the booklet. Chilcott’s choral writing is very effective in suggesting deep night. There follows a short setting, ‘We need’, which is very similar to ‘As if’ and that’s appropriate since this section, too, deals with man’s pillaging of the environment. This movement ends in a rather different way to ‘As if’. Suddenly the pace of the music slows markedly as the choir sings “Now the forest has gone/how quiet it is!”; it’s a moment of realisation and, dare we hope, of awareness. The following movement is in effect a requiem for the environment; indeed, some of the choir sing Latin words from the Requiem Mass over and over. Meanwhile the youth choir recites a list of extinct wildlife species. It doesn’t sound much when described in mere words but, when heard, the effect is moving. In the last of the four sections of this movement I like the way Bennett has woven into his poem ‘Sorry too late’ words from the General Confession that are found in the Book of Common Prayer.

It would be a challenge – and probably unrealistic - to bring The Angry Planet to a “happy end” after this. Wisely, Chilcott and Bennett don’t try. However, they do manage to leave us on a note of cautious optimism, not least with a setting of a poem about an otter swimming in clear water. The message is clear: it’s not too late to save the Planet. The Angry Planet is a sincere, effective and impressive score and it’s impressively performed here.

These three works are full of attractive, accessible music. Bob Chilcott is a most effective musical communicator and these scores display his gifts as a choral composer to the full. The performances are consistently excellent and the recorded sound is truthful and clear.

I see that my colleague, Gwyn Parry-Jones made this a Recording of the Month. Having heard the discs I agree wholeheartedly with his judgement.

John Quinn

Previous review: Gwyn Parry-Jones (July Recording of the Month)



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