The Nine Gifts
Laurie Ashworth (soprano) & Andrew Staples (tenor) [Requiem]
Wells Cathedral Choir
Jonathan Vaughn (organ)
Members of The Nash Ensemble [Requiem]
Recorded 25-26 May and 21-22 June 2011 in The Cathedral Church of St Andrew in Wells, Somerset, England
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The name Bob Chilcott (born 1955) is frequently heard in the same breath as that of another champion of the English choral tradition, Juhn Rutter. The comparison is not wholly without foundation, as some of the dancing tunes on Hyperion’s release attest – all are first recordings – but there is also an individual voice at work here: that of a composer capable of profound musical utterances yet comfortable enough to absorb influences ranging from Gabriel Fauré to musical theatre, and to channel them with equal conviction into his eclectic yet coherent style.
It is Fauré, along with his disciple Maurice Duruflé, who provides the template for the most substantial work here, a 2010 setting of the Requiem. Cunningly scored for an accompaniment of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, organ and timpani – six instruments that meld with the cathedral acoustic to give the illusion of a full orchestra – there are unmistakable nods in the ‘Introit’ to Gallic forebears as high lines of legato melody float through the vaulting and conclude on a long, hanging dominant.
Chilcott’s Requiem is so calm, so insistent in its focus on rest and peace, that he does not accommodate the ‘Libera me’ in any guise, let alone acknowledge a sniff of a ‘Dies irae’. In its place he slots a vernacular text of his own choosing, ‘Thou knowest, Lord’ from the Book of Common Prayer, in between the ‘Agnus Dei’ (a sublime inspiration) and a rapt ‘Lux aeterna’. While the English movement would stand alone as a stylish, gently stirring anthem, its isolation within the context of an otherwise straightforward Mass for the Dead jars somewhat.
Tenor Andrew Staples is particularly well captured by the recording, not haloed above the ensemble but emerging through the choral textures with quiet dignity. He sings in four of the work’s movements, soprano Laurie Ashworth in three. Both are fine. As for Wells Cathedral Choir, under Matthew Owens this superb body has joined the rarefied elite of British choirs. The choristers’ rich, confident sound makes one long to hear them in more-established repertoire as well as in exciting new music such as Chilcott’s.
Downing Service is jazzy, Rutteresque and not particularly memorable, while the final work, Jesus, springing (to an affecting verse by Kevin Crossley-Holland) has a ‘where-have-I-heard-this-before?’ quality: the mood of a blessing, perhaps; a little like God be in my head. However, the exciting Pilgrim Jesus is a biting Brittenesque dance, and there is an infectiously rhythmic tunefulness to The Nine Gifts with its interjections of “Brr!”, “Eeyore!” and “Coo-oo!”
At the heart of the programme are four Motets extracted from the Salisbury Vespers of 2009 (all the works on this disc were composed within a 24-month span), the first three of which are superb creations: distinguished and moving. The fourth one, ‘Hail, star of the sea most radiant’, is a rousing, punchy anthem redolent of William Matthias, but it lacks the originality of the others. ‘I sing of a mayden’ is an unfussy setting of that familiar text whose treble line is blest with a touching simplicity that matches the words precisely; ‘When to the temple Mary went’ is equally striking as it wends its way through some sweet chromatic harmonies, while the Easter motet ‘Lovely tear of lovely eye’ cradles its strophic text in a diatonic melody of melting beauty. Not only do these three selections boost the appeal of this highly recommendable issue, they also mark Chilcott out as a major composer. Hyperion's presentation includes texts and translations.