Chilcott Christmas PRCD1240

Bob Chilcott (b. 1955)
Wenceslas (2014)
Sun Dance (2019)
On Christmas Night (2011)
Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano), René Bloice-Sanders (baritone)
Richard Moore (organ)
West London Chorus/Hilary Campbell
rec. 2021, venue not listed
Texts included

Bob Chilcott has in many ways assumed the mantle of John Rutter in terms of writing Christmas – and other – choral music which is tuneful and accessible both to singers and audiences. Yet, as I know from singing a good deal of music by both composers over the years, just because their pieces are attractive and accessible doesn’t mean that there’s no challenge to the performers’ capabilities. Crucially, both composers have a great skill in connecting with people through their music.

Hilary Campbell and the West London Chorus here present two Christmas works by Chilcott, each of which plays for over twenty minutes in performance. I’ve heard both works before: the first recording of Wenceslas was made by the American choir, Choralis in 2017 (review), while a British choir, Commotio gave us the premiere recording of On Christmas Night in 2013 (review).

On Christmas Night is an eight-movement score in which Chilcott tells the Christmas story through seven carols (the opening carol is reprised, but with different words, as the final movement). It’s a versatile composition in that it can be performed with readings interspersed between the musical numbers – the composer even suggests the readings in the vocal score – or it can be sung, as here and on the Commotio recording, without the readings. In several of the numbers Chilcott skilfully weaves together an original tune with a traditional carol melody. So, for example, in the third setting, ‘A spotless Rose’ we hear Bob Chilcott’s own, highly attractive melody and there’s also a verse of the carol ‘Lo, how a Rose e’re blooming’ (to the melody ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’). In the first and last movements Chilcott combines a pleasing new tune to ‘This is the truth sent from above’ with ‘Once in Royal David’s city’. I think these combinations work extremely well.

Hilary Campbell and her choir give a good account of On Christmas Night. I think, though, that Ms Campbell, whose direction of the two choral works is otherwise sure-footed, miscalculates the tempo for the first (and last) carol by choosing rather too steady a speed. On both the Commotio disc and also in a performance that I’ve heard conducted by Chilcott himself, the pace is a bit swifter. The difference in speed isn’t great but it makes a noticeable difference; in the West London Chorus version the carol sounds too solemn and reverential. That’s accentuated because the number of singers is greater than on the other versions – 63 singers are listed in the Priory booklet. However, matters aren’t helped by the recording itself.

The venue isn’t stated but it’s obviously a church with quite a resonant acoustic. The choir sounds as if it’s positioned at a distance and the overall effect is that while the organ registers well the chorus is too recessed; frankly, the choir sounds somewhat muddy, which I’m certain doesn’t reflect the quality of the singing. Interestingly, the Commotio recording was also made in church but the sound is much more immediate. This is a pity because, for example, the choral singing is suitably energetic in lively movements such as ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ and in the penultimate number, ‘Rejoice and be merry’, but their performance – and the words in particular – is not ideally clear.

Unfortunately, the performance of Wenceslas suffers from the same problem. Chilcott wrote it for the choir and orchestra of the John Lewis partnership, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the British retail chain. When I reviewed the Choralis recording, I explained, largely for the benefit of our non-UK readers, that the John Lewis partnership is owned not by shareholders but by its employees who benefit from a share of the profits each year. Thus, John Lewis is a mutual business and, as I said, “it’s rather fitting that an anniversary of a mutual business should be marked by a re-telling of the legend of Good King Wenceslas, which is itself something of a mutuality legend”. Bob Chilcott described the work, unashamedly, as an “entertainment”. His friend, the poet Charles Bennett (b 1954), with whom he has frequently collaborated, wrote him a libretto telling the Wenceslas story. As is the case in On Christmas Night, Chilcott successfully combines new music with traditional Christmas fare – in this case, just the one carol, ‘Good King Wenceslas’.

As well as an SATB choir, who carry a lot of the narrative, plus elements of reflection on the story, Chilcott uses two soloists: a baritone, who takes the part of the King, and a mezzo, who represents the Page. For this performance, the orchestral accompaniment is played on the organ and we learn from the booklet that Richard Moore “collaborated” with the composer on the organ registrations. I think Moore has done a very good job and in particular the two purely instrumental interludes come off very well indeed in this performance.

Wenceslas may be an entertainment but Chilcott and Bennett have also incorporated some thoughtful episodes. These include the sixth movement ‘Thank you’, which is largely a solo for the Page (very nicely sung by Martha McLorinan), and the concluding movement ‘On Saint Stephen’s Night’ which furnishes the inevitable happy ending, but does so in a warm and reflective fashion. Those movements go well but in other sections, where the music is livelier, I don’t think the performance – as recorded – is quite as successful. There are quite a lot of words in Charles Bennett’s libretto – I don’t mean that as a criticism – and it’s often difficult to make out what the choir is singing about. If this is more of an issue than in On Christmas Night, I suspect that may be because the words in the latter piece are more familiar to us all. The members of the West London Chorus sing with evident commitment and it’s obvious that Hilary Campbell has prepared them well for this assignment – and, indeed, for On Christmas Night. The two soloists make good contributions and I especially appreciated the warm timbre of Martha McLorinan.

Richard Moore provides excellent accompaniments in both choral works. He gets his own moment in the spotlight between those two works when he plays the brief organ solo Sun Dance. Though this dates from 2019 it is, in fact, a revised version of one of the movements from a much earlier work for organ and orchestra, Organ Dances (1996). This short piece makes excellent use of irregular rhythms. Exuberant outer sections encase a brief central passage which is more subdued. Moore’s performance of the piece is exciting and I liked work and performance a lot.

These are creditable performances of two attractive works by the West London Chorus. They sing with commitment and evident enjoyment of the music; the enjoyment is understandable given the appealing nature of Chilcott’s music. They are also attentive to dynamics; it’s obvious that Hilary Campbell has prepared them well and that they respond to her conducting. Unfortunately, their sterling work has been somewhat compromised by the recording itself. This release has the convenience factor in that you get both of the Chilcott Christmas works on the same disc but I have to say that the earlier recordings of both pieces seem preferable.

John Quinn

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