Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955)
All Good Things
Ophelia, Caliban and Miranda (2016) [12:50]
Marriage to My Lady Poverty (2012) [4:44]
Scarborough Fair (2008) [2:04]
The Real of Heart (2016) [3:55]
Jazz Songs of Innocence (2011) [17:29]
Thou, my love, art fair (2015) [4:12]
The House of the Rising Sun (2008) [4:27]
Weather Report (2005) [4:47]
Nidarus Jazz Mass (2012/14) [17:12]
Sue Greenway (saxophone); Raphael Mizraki (double bass); Alexander Hawkins (piano); Jon Scot (drums)
Commotio/ Bob Chilcott & Matthew Berry
rec. 2016, Church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford. DDD
NAXOS 8.573383 [71:40]
Throughout his career Bob Chilcott seems to have been effortlessly at home, both as a performer and as a composer, in both the fields of ‘serious’ and ‘light’ music. Membership of the Choir of King’s College Cambridge and, later, a long conducting association with the BBC Singers have been important examples of his more ‘serious’ side and have been key influences on his compositional style. No less crucial, however, was his period as a member of The King’s Singers which nurtured the lighter side of his compositional and arranging style. The key thing about Bob Chilcott, though, is his unquenchable enthusiasm: he wants to help people – performers and audiences alike - to enjoy music, whether he’s working as a composer, arranger or conductor. This enthusiasm shines like a beacon in the music on this disc.
The Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio, founded in 1999, has a specific brief to promote contemporary choral music. To this end they’ve already made recordings for Naxos of music by James Whitbourn and Francis Pott. They’ve also taken Chilcott’s music into the recording studio: I enjoyed very much their disc of some of his Christmas music (review). Here, they join forces with four leading jazz musicians in a programme of Bob Chilcott’s jazz-influenced output.
The first four tracks all feature settings of words by the British poet, Charles Bennett, one of Chilcott’s favourite collaborators. Ophelia, Caliban and Miranda is a set of three songs in which Bennett takes three of the principal characters from The Tempest and imagines ‘what might have happened if….’ In the set, ‘River Bride’ (Ophelia’s song) is sprightly and upbeat, the sung parts crisply delivered by Commotio. Caliban’s ‘Ariel taught me how to play’ has nice, relaxed lines for the choir interspersed with smoky saxophone solos. Finally, ‘All good things come to an end’ imagines what might have happened if Miranda had forsaken Ferdinand and returned to Prospero’s island and life with Caliban. This returns us to upbeat music.
Bennett also provides the words for Marriage to My Lady Poverty, a piece I’ve heard before. This is unaccompanied. It’s a very attractive piece in which the choral lines intertwine most effectively. Commotio make a fine job of what is, to my taste, one of the best pieces on their programme.
The Real of Heart, on which Bob Chilcott plays the piano part, was composed for Chorus America, a choral organisation based in Washington DC. The invitation to compose it came just after the sudden and premature death of John Scott, Director of Music at St Thomas, Fifth Avenue, New York and before that at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Scott was a Cambridge contemporary of Bob Chilcott who wrote this piece in his memory. It sets anonymous words which I’d not encountered before. The words are so appropriate as a tribute and Chilcott sets them to very lovely music. This is a fine musical memorial.
Jazz Songs of Innocence is a set of five songs to poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. The songs are for SSA choir and were originally composed for a children’s choir festival in New Orleans. They’re all most attractive settings and the lovely, fresh sound made by the female voices of Commotio is a delight. ‘Piping down the valleys wild’ is jolly and upbeat. Setting ‘The Lamb’ must be a bit of a challenge for any composer nowadays thanks to John Tavener. Chilcott’s solution is to provide a winning, slow melody accompanied by a smoochy jazz trio: it works! The last of the set, ‘The Divine Image’, is the one which the composer says motivated him to write these songs. It’s the longest of the five and it features an archetypal Chilcott slow melody. The result is most touching.
Weather Report was composed as a showstopper conclusion to a programme that the BBC Singers and Stephen Cleobury were to perform in Kyoto, Japan. Chilcott tells us that he decided to write in a big band style – for a cappella choir! For his text he selected some traditional rhymes on that most British of preoccupations, the weather. The result is ingenious and, given the ensemble for which it was written, far from easy. Commotio bring off this very clever piece splendidly.
There’s a Japanese connection, too, to Nidarus Jazz Mass – I believe Bob Chilcott’s music is very popular in that country. The mass, which is sung in Latin, was originally written for a Norwegian SSA choir but Chilcot re-wrote it for SATB choir at the request of the Kyoto Echo Choir in Japan. I must confess, I don’t usually go for jazz masses – Will Todd’s terrific Mass in Blue being the exception that proves the rule – but this one strikes me as being pretty successful and I should imagine it’s fun to sing. The choir, superbly supported by the jazz trio, does it very well indeed. Incidentally, this mass should not be confused with Chilcott’s Little Jazz Mass (2004/06).
I’ve considered most of the tracks in order but I’ve deliberately held back to last my out-and-out favourite among this programme. Thou, my love, art fair was written for The King’s Singers to perform at a charity concert in Minneapolis and is designed for unaccompanied AATBarBarB voices, though I presume Commotio have adapted it to fit their own vocal line-up. The words are by the sixteenth-century British poet, William Baldwin. The piece is slow and has a lovely melody, beautifully harmonised. This is Chilcott at his best, the music simple of utterance yet sophisticated. It receives an outstanding performance from Commotio under the composer’s direction. All I can say is that the first time I played this disc I immediately replayed this track before moving on. It’s a winner.
This is a most enjoyable disc, full of attractive and entertaining music. As a matter of purely personal taste I think that it’s the slower tempo items that are the most successful. That said, Chilcott in up-tempo mood is thoroughly engaging so other listeners may react differently. I doubt there’ll be any debate, however, about the quality of the performances. The jazz musicians are slick, tight and professional. Their contributions seem right on the money to me. As for the singing of Commotio, it’s consistently fine. The choir numbers 28 (7/9/6/6) and they produce a fresh, attractive and well-focussed sound. The choir is disciplined and well-balanced and diction is very good. It’s clear that they’ve been expertly trained by Matthew Berry who on this occasion shares the conducting duties with Bob Chilcott.
Mike Hatch has produced an excellent recording in which all components - instruments and singers – are clearly heard. The very good documentation includes useful notes by the composer and all the sung texts.
Buy this disc to blow away the cobwebs and put a smile on your face.