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Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955)
In Winter’s Arms
Wenceslas [26:11]
Jesus, Springing [4:46]
My Perfect Stranger [14:58]
The Nine Gifts [4:16]
Gloria [15:44]
Choralis/Gretchen Kuhrmann
Cantus Primo Youth Choir
The Classical Brass Quintet
rec. 2017, Church of the Epiphany, Washington DC

This isn’t just a collection of Christmas music and, in fact, it contains a Gloria that can fit at any time of the year. Instead it’s a celebration of Bob Chilcott’s work with Choralis, an American choir of whom he writes very warmly in the booklet note, and with whom he has had a very close working relationship as their associate composer.

The Christmas cantata Wenceslas was written for the 150th anniversary of John Lewis on Oxford Street. Chilcott approaches the idea of retelling the Wenceslas legend with his trademark melodic approachability and harmonically appealing textures. The opening flourish for the small ensemble and organ mirrors the austerity of the storm, which the chorus then mollify with their talk of staying indoors in the heat, the twinkling harp suggesting the glinting of the snow outside. There is a slight element of threat in depicting the pauper lying in the poverty of his hut in the snow, but otherwise the tone is warm and inviting, and united by the fact that, in each section, Chilcott finds a way to incorporate a verse of the hymn tune, culminating in the last part where the final verse is sung by the congregation. Baritone soloist James Shaffran makes for a young sounding King Wenceslas, but that's no bad thing, and it’s a neat idea to have him contrasting the voice of the page which is taken by the choral sopranos.

Three of the works on the disc flow from texts written by the author Kevin Crossley-Holland. Jesus Springing is a carol I’d hear before, and I find it very affecting. It showcases Chilcott’s gift for a memorable tune and an appealing wash of harmonies, and I found myself succumbing to it all over again in this big, bloomy acoustic. My Perfect Stranger tells the story of the Nativity in a highly condensed manner, and the outer movements contain wiry harmonic textures that are quite unusual for Chilcott. It’s still very appealing, though, and I enjoyed the dramatic pace of the middle movements when all the characters appear and sing a few lines each. The Nine Gifts is pleasingly upbeat.

The Classical Brass Quintet join in for Chilcott’s Gloria whose gleaming tone and jazzy textures made me smile throughout, even in the more contemplative Domine Deus section, and the prayerful last movement has all the appealing warmth of Chilcott at his most appealing.

Chilcott's music undeniably sounds great when sung by a small scale professional chamber choir (such as here) but there’s something equally appealing in the inclusive joy of a performance by a larger group of amateurs. This disc is a tribute to them, as much as to the composer of the music they sing.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn



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