MusicWeb, September 2007
Former member of The King’s Singers, Bob Chilcott, has acquired a growing reputation in recent years as a composer and conductor. This new CD – the first, I think, completely devoted to his music – illustrates just why he’s become such a respected and popular figure. On the evidence of what I’ve hard of it to date on this and other recordings -Chilcott’s vocal music seems to me to share a number of very desirable characteristics with that of John Rutter. In the first place both seem to have a natural melodic gift, something that one can’t say about every composer. Secondly their harmonies are interesting and not always as straightforward as might seem to be the case on casual acquaintance. Thirdly, my experience from having sung quite a bit of Rutter’s music over the years is that it’s by no means as easy to perform as it may sound and whilst I have yet to sing any of Bob Chilcott’s music I strongly suspect that his music similarly contains technical challenges and traps for the unwary. Finally, and crucially, both composers are able to write music that communicates directly and effectively with the audience without condescension and that’s enjoyable and nicely challenging to perform. All the music on this CD is accessible, concise and says something worthwhile. Chronologically the chosen repertoire ranges from Chilcott’s first significant composition, The Modern Man I Sing right up to Weather Report, an unashamed encore piece that was written specially for the BBC Singers and their conductor, Stephen Cleobury. Chilcott himself has a strong connection with the BBC Singers, whose Principal Guest Conductor he is. The choir is renowned as an expert ensemble and here they sing splendidly under Chilcott’s direction. I was very taken with the Advent Antiphons. The so-called Great ‘O’ antiphons are sung at Vespers or Evensong during the days leading up to Christmas. There are seven antiphons and one is proper for each of the days between 17 and 24 December. Chilcott’s settings were composed for the choir of Reykjavik Cathedral and though I imagine the settings can be sung individually Chilcott has made the antiphons into a consecutive concert setting. They’re very effective, conveying the anticipatory spirit of Advent admirably. The plainsong roots of the antiphons are discernible but the harmonies in which the melodies are cloaked are inventive, especially in the third, ‘O Radix Jesse’ and the fifth, ‘O Oriens’, in both of which the women’s voices carol freely around the men’s melodic material, imitating, as Chilcott says in his notes, the singing of birds and paying a homage to Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, a work he admires greatly. Christmas itself is represented by a delightfully fresh carol setting, The Shepherd’s Carol. This was written for the televised version of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, where the composer himself once sang in the choir, both as a chorister and as a choral scholar. The Making of the Drum is a most interesting piece, which sets five poems by Edward Kamau Brathwaite. The poems describe how various elements of a drum ‘the skin, the sticks and so on’ are fashioned. The version here recorded is a later revision, made sometime before 2003, which incorporates a marimba into the scoring. This adds to the African ambience of much of the work, which vibrant, dancing rhythms establish in the faster movements. It’s a fascinating and very enjoyable score and although three of the movements are lively the second and fifth, which are slower and more thoughtful in tone, are beautifully poetic. There’s a nice story behind the composition of And Every Stone Shall Cry, which was commissioned by an American lady as a surprise gift for her parents. She brought them all the way to London for a holiday and during their sightseeing she led her unsuspecting parents into a church where, by prior arrangement, the piece was performed specially for them by a waiting choir It’s a lovely piece of simple eloquence and one can only imagine the delight of the dedicatees to receive such a gift. Most of the music on the disc is for unaccompanied choir and in the two cases where instrumental accompaniment is provided the choice of instrument is most unusual. As we’ve already noted The Making of the Drum includes an important marimba part. In the case of Beach, Chilcott employs a viola, superbly played by Paul Silverthorne. The viola’s nutty brown sound adds a marvellously wistful touch to this piece. I don’t quite know why but this piece put me in mind of Samuel Barber – and there’s more to the link than the fact that the title of Chilcott’s piece is close to Barber’s masterly Dover Beach. The selection of music on this disc has been well made to give a good variety of perspectives on Bob Chilcott’s choral output. I enjoyed the recital immensely. Chilcott is a resourceful composer and one who writes exceptionally well for voices and he is superbly served here by the virtuosity of the BBC Singers. With good notes by the composer himself and excellent recorded sound this all adds up to a most attractive package.
International Record Review, October 2007
Having been a chorister and choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge and member of The King’s Singers for 12 years, Bob Chilcott knows a thing or two about choral and ensemble singing. As well as conducting choirs (he’s Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Singers), Chilcott has, since 1997, been a full-time composer – though composition has been a part of his music-making for a lot longer. As he says in his booklet notes, he’s been writing music since he was 15; he also subsequently did a lot of arranging for the BBC and the King’s Singers. This enormous experience comes through in Chilcott’s vibrant and attractive choral compositions, where you get a sense of the settings having grown organically out of their texts, so attuned is Chilcott to words and their import.
In The Making of the Drum, Chilcott’s setting, appropriately influenced by African rhythms and singing, preserves the magical and reverential qualities of the text as it moves from the killing of a goat for its skin for the various woods needed to ‘The Gong-Gong’, which animates not only the drum but, it seems, all of creation. Simone Rebello’s marimba in turn helps to animate the more celebratory sections of the work, which feature much shouting and clapping. The following My Prayer, based in part of Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, seems an appropriate envoi to The Making of the Drum, Chilcott’s setting emphasizing both the individual and the multitudes while evoking eternity. These same qualities are evident in the in the Advent Antiphons, which, with their multiple layers of voices and floating, chant-like structures, collectively have the effect of an eternal supplication.
Chilcott’s big break came in 1991 when he sent his setting of Walt Whitman’s poem The Runner to Karle Erickson, conductor of the Gustavus Choir (a Lutheran college choir from Minnesota) and was commissioned to write the rest of what was to be The Modern Man I Sing. The same performers subsequently toured and recorded the work. Chilcott gives ‘The Runner’ an extraordinary sense of movement, recalling in many ways aspects of The Making of the Drum; by contrast, ‘The Last Invocation’, in which Whitman prays for an easeful death, is gentle and serene. ‘One’s-Self I Sing’ returns to the vigorous energy of the opening setting, its final moments evoking both dance and peals of bells.
Apart from My Prayer, there are many other short, stand-alone works on the disc, of which one of the most impressive is the atmosphere Beach, which features the sublime viola playing of Paul Silverthorne. As for the singing, it is superb throughout, the BBC Singers, no doubt spurred on Chilcott’s conducting, giving themselves entirely over to both words and music without for a moment allowing any technical lapses. Of the solo contributions, soprano Olivia Robinson is particularly fine in Pange Lingua, as is tenor Andrew Murgatroyd in Simple Pictures of Tomorrow. The booklet notes and sound recording are both of the same excellence.
Choir and Organ, November/ December 2007
Bob Chilcott’s music is audience-friendly; no one is better at writing tuneful, rhythmic, fun music, but nevertheless it has a transient air. This cannot be said of his settings of sacred texts. Impressive is the beautiful Great O Antiphons (Salisbury Rite), Pange lingua and The Last Invocation. And Every Stone Shall Cry is a minor masterpiece and his setting of the secular text Simple Pictures of Tomorrow is evocative and haunting. The BBC Singers give their usual polished performance.
Gramophone, December 2007
Bob Chilcott’s choral music has long been favoured by choral groups who relish his often light-hearted, always accessible and immensely singable music. The Making of the Drum, with its buoyant choral writing and catchy African rhythms (the work was inspired by a visit Chilcott made to Uganda in 1984) is typical. It is a later version we have here, and replacing most of the original percussion effects made by the singers themselves with the marimba (played with real warmth by Simone Rebello) was something of a masterstroke.
Chilcott may have avoided pastiche by a zebra’s hair’s-breadth but the sheer vitality of this music exudes genuine joyfulness.
At the other end of the scale is My Prayer, a work written to go alongside Sandström’s famous "deconstruction" of Purcell’s Hear My Prayer. As Chilcott writes in his note, ‘mine eventually comes back to it’, but the intensity of the writing and its textural density will come as a surprise to those who know only of his lighter choral side.
This more heavyweight choice is also apparent in the rich and opulent Advent Antiphons, while Chilcott at his most sentimental comes with the undeniably lovely and atmospheric setting of Beach with its echoes of Vaughan Williams’s Flos campi in its evocative solo viola (eloquently played by Paul Silverthorne).
Be it jazzy, humorous or serious, all the artistic and technical demands of this varied programme are deftly handled by the wonderfully versatile BBC Singers, clearly happy to be working under the composer’s baton. With Signum’s suitably spacious recorded sound, this is a glorious showcase of one of the finest choral composers at work in Britain today.