Well, the weather was certainly appropriate for a recording of Christmas carols! Over the weekend the Oxford-based chamber choir Commotio, in which I have had the pleasure to sing for 5 years, recorded a disc of carols by Bob Chilcott in Keble Chapel, due for release in November 2013 on the Naxos label, under the direction of the mighty Matthew Berry. For those of you unfamiliar with the choir, it was founded in 1999 to provide a ‘refreshing alternative’ to the usual choral repertoire by focusing on little known works of the 20th and 21st centuries. For anyone who has been through the mill of Evensong repertoire for years (i.e. me), such a choir provides a wonderful opportunity to discover new music (especially by working with composers of new works), be challenged musically, and, well, have a good time with other like-minded individuals. The choir is that rare thing: amateur in the best sense of it being our hobby, while capable of negotiating difficult music. We get a fair bit of air-time on ClassicFM and Radio 3, and for a discussion on Radio 3 of the music on our last disc, the choral music of Francis Pott, see here: Caroline Gill of Gramophone Magazine calls the choir ‘uniquely good’!
With this in mind, you might ask why we were recording a disc of Bob Chilcott’s carols, some of whose works, unlike most of the repertoire we sing, are very well known in choral circles, and whose music isn’t (at least at first blush) as challenging a sing as Commotio’s usual staple diet. I’ve found that some can be quite snobby about his music, brushing it aside as ‘cheesey’, often lumping it together with the music of John Rutter. If you think there is nothing more to Chilcott’s music than An Irish Blessing, can I invite you to think again. I first realised there was more to his music than my school-girl choral experiences had led me to believe when I sang his Advent Antiphons in 2007. These are anything other than cheesey. Bob is a hugely experienced choral composer who writes in many different styles, but what I find underpins his music is the fact that it is so singable. You can really tell he’s a singer and I never feel vocally tired after singing his music, even for 12 hours a day during a recording! He also manages to compose music which is both musically interesting and accessible for a wider audience: no mean feat!
We recorded something like 24 individual movements/pieces, including the more well-known Shepherd’s carol. Many of the pieces were for unaccompanied choir, but we also recorded some with organ, harp, flute and oboe, and worked with a lovely soprano soloist, Laurie Ashworth. It was quite an experience getting used to singing with instrumentalists in the boomy acoustic of Keble chapel, but it was a lot of fun. Many of the pieces are absolute gems. Bob explained that he likes to set music to texts by modern poets such as Kevin Crossley-Holland and Helen Dunmore, and I found that these texts so wonderfully explore the mystery of the incarnation, which, given that this is a Christmas disc, is the central theme. Crossley-Holland’s poem The Heart in Waiting is particularly brilliant, and I think the title so amazingly captures both the about-to-be-ness and the eternity of God’s plan to become man: Jesus has been there since the beginning, a ‘heart in waiting’.
And Bob’s settings of these texts are sublime. He writes like a French composer in Les Anges de nos Compagnes, and his double-choir setting of Before the ice/O Magnum Mysterium is weighty and full of awe as the narrator contemplates the implications of the incarnation. But it was his setting of On Christmas Night that I loved the most. It is a collection of eight movements for choir, harp, organ, oboe and flute based on familiar texts such as Once in Royal David’s City, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (translated) and O little town of Bethlehem. For each text he has written a new tune, but then introduces the traditional tune later on into the texture, i.e. over the top of the new tune, and all this without the new tune sounding like it’s been written to ‘fit’ the old one – amazing! I can never understand how composers write new tunes to texts which have such well-established choral arrangements already. But Bob’s setting of This is the truth sent from above far outdoes the traditional Vaughan Williams arrangement in its simplicity and mystery, really bringing out how contrary the incarnation is to the world’s expectations.
Commotio recordings are never stressful, and it was an enjoyable weekend. There is a real spirit of ‘togetherness’ in the choir and it means that we always have a lot of fun making music without it ever being cliquey or diva-ish. And the tenors are always making us laugh: check out their Christmas jumpers!
I’ll probably blog again about this once the disc is out (we’ll be having a launch concert in London in November). Watch this space! And if you can’t wait till then, here’s King’s College Cambridge’s offering of The Shepherd’s Carol in 2011.