3:00 AM 25th November 2023
Classical Music: Bob Chilcott Christmas Oratorio
Christmas, for many, is a magical time, especially when it comes to the musical feast offered by the season. It is also a time when the spirit of participation becomes ever-present, a sentiment that has not been lost on Bob Chilcott.
Bob Chilcott Christmas Oratorio
Sarah Connolly mezzo-soprano, Mary; Nick Pritchard tenor, Evangelist; Neal Davies bass, Herod and Simeon. Ciara Williams angel; Tim Burton Gabriel.
Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia
Chloe Vincent flute. Olivia Jageurs harp
Benjamin Nicholas conductor
He has taken the Christmas story and created a fresh, engaging, and all-encompassing choral work with all the traits of Chilcott’s compositional style: melodic, pleasing lines, beautiful orchestration, and all the ingredients to add sparkle to the celebrations: choir, harp (Olivia Jageurs), flute (Chloe Vincent), organ (Owen Chan and François Cloete), brass, timpani, soloists, and, cleverly, hymns for everyone to join in. Undoubtedly, it will become an annual choral society classic.
The scoring is for a small team of orchestral players, SATB choir, and soloists.
Benjamin Nicholas’ Choir of Merton College, Oxford, is in top form, producing wonderful sounds in the opening short but expressive Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
and the elements of plainsong. Chilcott has been ingenious in intertwining the Magnificat
and Nunc Dimittis
, as well as the well-known verses from Luke’s Gospel, into his libretto, in addition to other authors who are recognisable throughout the Christmas period. Nicholas’ choir never intrudes when accompanying the soloists, producing a lovely, resonant, and lyrical ensemble. The a cappella parts are sensitively and meaningfully performed.
The narration is conveyed with superb clarity and expression, with moments of tenderness such as Love Came Down at Christmas
, where Sarah Connolly delivers Christina Rossetti’s words beautifully, accompanied by harp and choir, and Neal Davies powerfully and movingly transmits the message of the Nunc Dimittis.
I would not be surprised to see this taken up by cathedral choirs as part of Evensong.
The Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia is excellent throughout, with sympathetic and stylish playing, especially the brass, which, with the organ at the beginning of A Great and Mighty Wonder
, brilliantly communicates to the listener, with such a pleasing choir melody, that Christmas has arrived.
Chiclott has taken a compositional formula known since the times of Bach and Handel et al, and transmuted it with a perfect 21st-century twist that will ensure it becomes a much-loved work for decades to come.
Delphian’s recording engineers have done a great job, especially for the joyous last track. Setting music to the words of Richard Crashaw, the piece ends triumphant with All wonders in one sight.
A terrific addition to the wealth of first-class Christmas repertoire.