Bob Chilcott (b. 1955)
Jesus Christ the apple tree
Christmas Oratorio (2019)
The Pear Tree Carol
Welcome, all wonders in one sight
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano – Mary); Nick Pritchard (tenor – Evangelist); Neal Davies (bass – Herod / Simeon)
Ciara Williams (soprano – Angel); Tim Burton (tenor – Gabriel)
Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia
Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Benjamin Nicholas
rec. 2023, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
Delphian DCD34321 
Bob Chilcott’s Christmas Oratorio was commissioned for the 2019 Three Choirs Festival, which was held that year in Gloucester. The first performance, which I attended, was given in Gloucester Cathedral and was given by the combined choirs of the cathedrals of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester, conducted by Adrian Partington (review). The three principal soloists were the same ones who here take part in the work’s premiere recording.
The Christmas Oratorio is scored for SATB choir and several soloists: the tenor is the Evangelist; Mary is sung by the mezzo; the bass takes the role of Simeon. There are three other smaller solo parts: Gabriel (tenor), the Angel (soprano), and Herod (bass). These may be taken by members of the choir, though on this occasion Neal Davies also features as Herod. The work can be accompanied in two different ways. One version requires just organ and flute. The other scoring, which is used on this recording, requires a small ensemble consisting of flute, two trumpets, horn, trombone, tuba, timpani, harp and organ. The harp has a particularly important role as the instrument, sometimes joined by the flute, which always accompanies the Evangelist
The Oratorio is founded upon the narrative of the birth of Christ, as related in the Gospel of St. Luke. Into this, Chilcott has woven settings for the choir of a number of familiar Christmas texts by authors such as Percy Dearmer, Christina Rossetti and Robert Herrick. Settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis have been included, in recognition that the premiere of this work was given in a cathedral where these canticles are part of the daily fabric of worship. Actually, the inclusion of the canticles goes deeper than that. The Magnificat, as it appears in St Luke’s Gospel, is the song Mary sang at the Annunciation; so, it’s fitting that these words are sung near the start of the Oratorio. Taking the narrative up as far as the Presentation in the Temple allows Chilcott very legitimately to include Simeon’s song, the Nunc dimittis. The work is ‘bookended’, as the composer terms it, by two different translations of the medieval German hymn, ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’.
An important feature of the work is the inclusion of four Christmas hymns, in a similar fashion to the chorales that Bach used in his Christmas Oratorio. Chilcott has selected traditional, familiar hymns but he has written new tunes for them, following the precedent he set for himself in his St John Passion (2013). It’s customary for hymn tunes to have names and, in a very nice touch, Chilcott named his tunes for people associated with the work’s premiere. So, at the very start the choir sings a hymn ‘Lo! How a rose e’er blooming’ to a tune named ‘Partington’ for Adrian Partington, the Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral; this tune is reprised right at the end for ‘A great and mighty wonder’. Partington’s opposite number at Hereford Cathedral, Geraint Bowen is honoured with the tune for ‘Thou whose almighty word’. The melody for ‘Shepherds, in the field abiding’ is named ‘Laura’, I believe, for Chilcott’s editor at Oxford University Press, Laura Jones. ‘As with gladness men of old’ is sung to ‘Paterson’, named for Alexis Paterson, the Chief Executive of the Three Choirs Festival. All these tunes are fairly simple in design but very effective and eminently singable. I recall that at the premiere, all of us in the audience were given a sheet with the words and melody lines and we all joined in heartily. (The same thing happened when I attended the first performance of the St John Passion.) Each hymn includes good descants. I have to say, though, that I think Benjamin Nicholas has missed a trick here. When Matthew Owens and the Choir of Wells Cathedral recorded the St John Passion they brought in amateur singers from some local choirs to join in the hymns; this worked very well and was in line with the composer’s intentions (review). Here, the hymns are just sung by the Merton College choir. Of course, they sing them immaculately but it’s a pity that some additional singers were not involved – there must be a plentiful supply in Oxford – to create the sense of audience/congregational participation that Chilcott had in mind.
The Gospel narrative is sung by the Evangelist. I admired Nick Pritchard’s clear, communicative singing at the premiere but, if anything I like even more what I hear on this recording. At the first performance he had to project his voice down the large nave of Gloucester Cathedral. Here, however, he is free from that requirement. Instead, he gives a subtle and beautifully light-toned performance. Working with the excellent harpist Olivia Jageurs, Pritchard sings the narration with a delightful intimacy which draws the listener right in. At certain points they’re joined by flautist Chloe Vincent. When that happens the pure, silvery sound of the flute adds a lovely extra dimension to the texture. I believe Bob Chilcott often sang the role of the Evangelist in the Bach Passions during his professional singing career; I’m sure he will be delighted by Pritchard’s memorably sensitive performance.
Dame Sarah Connolly has the role of Mary; luxury casting indeed. On her first appearance, when she responds to the greeting of Gabriel at the Annunciation, the rich timbre of her voice may not suggest that we are hearing the words of a young girl; however, there’s no doubting Connolly’s expressiveness. Shortly afterwards comes the setting of the Magnificat. Here, Chilcott has the choir singing the Latin words of the canticle to the plainchant melody associated with it. He sets this in 6/8 time and cunningly introduces just occasional bits of unexpected rhythmic irregularity. Meanwhile, the mezzo soloist sings the canticle in English to an original melody. Dame Sarah sings the solo line beautifully and I like very much the juxtaposition of the solo line with the choir. There are some passages of musical reflection during the work. Dame Sarah is involved in one of these. It’s a setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Love came down at Christmas’. This is marked by the composer as a Lullaby; he sets the words for the mezzo, the choir and a simple harp accompaniment. It’s a beautiful composition, expressively performed here, which provides a most attractive, meditative close to Part II.
The third soloist is Neal Davies. His main contribution comes in Part IV. As Chilcott draws the oratorio to a close he sets the Nunc dimittis. This immediately follows the narrative of the Presentation in the Temple (it’s a pity the recording doesn’t observe the attacca injunction leading into the Nunc dimittis). So it’s entirely appropriate that the bass soloist, as Simeon, should sing the words of the canticle with support from the choir. I like Davies’ singing very much; his tone is firm and he sings the words with evident sincerity. Chilcott’s music is very warm in this movement.
There are two smaller solo roles: Gabriel, sung by tenor Tim Burton, and the Angel, which is entrusted to soprano Ciara Williams. Both of these singers are members of the Merton choir and both of them make fine contributions. Burton, who is involved in Part I, loses nothing in comparison with Nick Pritchard in terms of clarity of diction and tone. Williams’ solo spot comes at the start of Part II when the Angel announces Christ’s birth to the shepherds. Her solo is lovely; she sings with clear, pure tone.
Anyone who has heard the Merton College choir previously will know that their standards are always exceptionally high; that’s the case in this performance, too. As well as their singing in the two canticle settings and the aforementioned Rossetti movement, Chilcott gives them two more excellent opportunities Part I closes with an a cappella chorus, ‘A Boy was Born’. This is a setting of Percy Dearmer’s English translation of the German chorale ‘Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem’. Chilcott’s marking for this movement is ‘Expressive and flexible’; that’s exactly what Benjamin Nicholas and his expertly trained choir bring to the music. In Part III the choir have another unaccompanied movement, a setting of Robert Herrick’s ‘A Carol to the King’. Nichloas shapes the music with great care and his choir delivers a touching performance. I’ve already mentioned the hymns, all of which the choir sings very well. now is a good time to mention that the instrumental parts are, without exception, expertly played. The accompaniment adds just the right colours and these players bring out the felicities of Chilcott’s scoring. Benjamin Nicholas conducts the oratorio with empathy and authority.
Bob Chilcott’s Christmas Oratorio made a very positive impression on me when I first heard it; the opportunity to hear it again and to appreciate it at greater leisure has strengthened that impression. The work is accessible, attractive and very sincere. It’s also very well constructed. The music exerts a strong appeal to audiences – as I discovered at the premiere. Often, when reviewing a choral work, I make a comment to the effect that the music seems to be enjoyable to sing. On this occasion, however, I know this to be the case because one of the choirs with which I sing is currently rehearsing the work for a performance in early December; we’ll be singing the piece in Gloucester Cathedral, the very place where the premiere took place. I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to get to know the music from the inside. I can confirm, therefore, that the oratorio appeals to singers and audiences alike. The work is very practical, too. Three expert singers are clearly needed for the main roles, but the choral parts are definitely within the compass of a well-trained amateur choir. Particularly relevant these days is that the instrumental resources required are by no means excessive and won’t break the bank. The oratorio, which here plays for 62 minutes, would sit nicely in one half of a Christmas concert. This excellent premiere recording will surely heighten awareness of this expertly crafted and attractive score.
Benjamin Nicholas has selected three fairly recent carols by Bob Chilcott to complete the programme. Two of them have been included in the recently-published Carols for Choirs 6. The exception is Welcome, all wonders in one sight which was commissioned for James O’Donnell’s last Christmas in charge of the music at Westminster Abbey in 2022. The words are by Richard Crashaw (1613-1649). The setting for SATB and organ is bright and jazzy; as I listened, I wondered if any of this seventeenth-century poet’s words have previously been set so boisterously. This is an exuberant conclusion to the CD. The other two carols, both from Carols for Choirs 6, are for unaccompanied choir. Jesus Christ the apple tree is here sung – very nicely – by sopranos and altos; however, I learned from the notes that Chilcott, ever the practical musician, has composed it so that it can be sung either in unison or for various combinations of voices. It’s very appealing and direct in its expression. For me, the pick of this trio of carols is The Pear Tree Carol. This was written for the first post-Covid concert given by Birmingham University Singers, of which Bob Chilcott is the conductor. His frequent collaborator, Charles Bennett (b 1964) wrote the words, which speak of the post-Winter awakening of Spring – a highly appropriate metaphor at a time when the UK was emerging from lockdown. I like Bennett’s words and Chilcott’s music fits them like a glove; this is a lovely contemporary carol.
This is a highly attractive disc on which very appealing music is performed to the highest of standards. Producer Jeremy Summerly and engineer Jack Davis have recorded the musicians most sympathetically. Stephen Pritchard’s notes are excellent.
Though you’d be pleased to find this CD under the tree on Christmas morning, it would be a shame to wait that long; this music should also be enjoyed as part of your Christmas preparations.
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