Described byGramophonemagazine as “one of the finest choral composers at work in Britain today”, Bob Chilcott is also one of the most popular, his work performed around the world and held in high regard for its immediacy, accessibility and lyrical lightness of touch.
In Winter’s Armscollates five recent works written with Christmas in mind and performed by the amateur mixed-voice, Washington, DC-based choir Choralis, with whom Chilcott was associate composer from 2014 to 2016.
Himself no stranger to singing – a former chorister and choral scholar at the venerable King’s College, Cambridge, he sang with the no less illustrious King’s Singers for 12 years – Chilcott seems incapable of writing a line that doesn’t suit the voice. Quite the reverse, as this rewarding collection illustrates.
Originally composed in 2014 for choir and full orchestra to mark the 150th anniversary of the British retailer John Lewis, the eight-movement, 26-minute-longWenceslasis heard here in a more instrumentally compact version (first performed by Choralis in 2016) substituting brass, timpani and organ for orchestra. To a text by poet Charles Bennett, it re-tells the familiar story of the eponymous Bohemian king who braved winter snows to rescue a peasant from certain death. Incorporating the traditional carolGood King Wenceslas, it’s a work as rich in melodic invention as it is in seasonal sentiment and sung here with becoming warmth, the finale glowing with serene good tidings.
The exquisiteJesus, Springingfor choir and organ with words by Kevin Crossley-Holland is altogether heavenly. Chilcott has seldom produced something so delicate or ravishing, the blending of high and low voices hauntingly beautiful, Todd Fickley’s organ accompaniment providing subtly nuanced accompaniment.
Crossley-Holland also provides the texts for the miniatureThe Nine Gifts– which brims with seasonal brio and bright ringing vocal lines supported by cossetting organ – andMy Perfect Stranger. An enlarged version of an earlier piece for the BBC Singers and harpist Tanya Houghton, it’s a short dramatic scena bookended by a newly-written Prologue and Epilogue. A charming re-telling of the Christmas story punctuated by contemplative reflection, it’s difficult to imagine it being better sung than here by Choralis or more precisely played than by Marian Rian Hays, who points up various permutations of adult and children’s voices with crisp, pristine detail.
Premiered by Choralis in 2015 and receiving its first recording,Gloriais a characteristically luminous Chilcott creation. Conceived for choir, organ, timpani and brass quintet, its four movements progress from effusive declaration to meditative introspection and soft lyrical reverence before concluding with resounding joy.
Impeccably directed throughout by Choralis founder Gretchen Kuhrmann, the recorded sound is lustrous and perfectly balanced.
Michael Quinn is a former deputy editor of Gramophone and Classic FM magazines and associate editor of The Classical Review. Widely published in print and online in the UK, USA, Australia and his native Ireland, he is an artistic assessor of music and drama with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and programming consultant to the region’s newest arts centre,Portico, Portaferry.
Performance: four stars
Sound: five stars
In Winter’s Arms: Seasonal Music by Bob Chilcott
McKinley Dyer (Mary), Philip Stimpert (Innkeeper), Carl Ellinwood, Vincent Fung, Joshua Brown (Magi), James Shaffran (Herod), Marian Rian Hays (harp), Julie Angelis Boehler (timpani), Todd Fickley (organ), Classical Brass Quintet, Cantus primo Youth Choir, Choralis / Gretchen Kuhrmann
Signum Classics SIGCD512 (Released: September 15, 2017.)