The choral music of Bob Chilcott is being performed with great enthusiasm by choirs up and down the country these days, and throughout the wider world too. It’s not difficult to see why; firstly he is a composer of great skill who has an innate understanding of the human voice through his experience of directing choirs, and before that as a member of the King’s Singers and as a Kings College Chorister. He also has a fine melodic gift, and a feeling for topics that will excite singers, particularly young people. You can see that from the subjects of the pieces here—crucial moments in human history in Five Days that Changed the World, and the beauty of nature and concerns for its preservation in the other two works. His unerring instinct for what will ‘work’ chorally means that he can even get away with setting an apparently unsingable phrase such as ‘I clettered the dishes, washed the pots’ in the fourth number of Five Days, a song dealing with the discovery of penicillin.
These five striking songs make a fine suite, well within the capabilities of good amateur singers, as long as they have an excellent pianist and percussionist available. They are perhaps not all equally successful; the first three are all effective and, in the case of ‘Friday 1st August 1834: The Abolition of Slavery’ really moving in its hymn-like simplicity. The other two don’t make quite such an impact, though the mysterious ‘blurring’ of choral textures in the final number describing the view of earth by the first man in space is undeniably striking. The BBC Singers perform this well, with admirably clear diction, and the Finchley Children’s Music Group add the demanding semi-chorus parts, coping almost perfectly with the tricky rhythms of ‘The Quick Brown Fox’ and its brilliant typewriter music.
The Miracle of the Spring, a cantata dealing with water shortage in the third world, was written, like the previous work, in 2013. It beautifully combines various percussion instruments with the choir; the parts are simple—originally intended to be possible to play by members of the choir—and the sounds of glockenspiel, log drums and mark tree (sometimes known as a ‘bell tree’) colour the various songs in a magical way. These are very light sounds, and the engineers deserve much praise for bringing them far enough forward to be heard properly.
The major work on this issue, occupying the whole of CD2, is the cantata The Angry Planet. Environmental cantatas (the description Chilcott uses) are thick on the ground; Peter Rose and Anne Conlon have done several, including the ubiquitous Yanamamo, and Richard Harvey’s Plague and the Moonflower has recently been re-issued by Altus. The concept has a—dare I say it—rather 1980s feel about it, when schools first started bothering their pupils with ‘The Environment’, and before controversy and dissent began to creep in. Then there’s the ever-present danger of being accused of hypocrisy; an acquaintance of mine rather cattily remarked “These people—jetting around the planet scolding ordinary folk for riding their mopeds!’
So how does The Angry Planet, composed for the 2012 Henry Wood Proms, measure up? The other works such as those mentioned above exist in that strange stylistic world bounded by the stage musical (principally Les Mis) and film music of the Star Wars genre. Chilcott is in a different league as a creator—he has his own distinctive style, plus the imagination to conjure up new forms of beauty from his resources. The challenge he set himself here was a daunting one; to compose a totally unaccompanied choral work, including children’s voices, lasting over three-quarters of an hour. That takes some doing, for composer and performers alike; but he has managed it, largely by keeping the harmonic movement fairly limited, and securing variety by contrast of textures and motion.
The result is a genuinely beautiful work, with an expressive intensity unmatched by more glitzy compositions. Chilcott has found in the poet Charles Bennett an ideal collaborator, and the poems are beautiful things in themselves. Bennett sets the scene in an English wood, experienced over a six-hour period, from midnight until 6 a.m., and the piece is divided into four movements, with three or four songs in each. The tranquillity and natural beauty of the wood is contrasted with the brutality and vandalism of humans, always furiously ground clearing and road building.
The children’s voices chime out brightly after the thoughtfulness of the first two songs; they represent the cheerful, irrepressible weeds, wild plants mankind does its best to eradicate, but which just keep coming back. Chilcott writes melodies which have a forthright character, but are not quite as simple as they sound, and Finchley Children’s Music Group perform with a greedy enthusiasm that is utterly delightful.
The third movement devotes much of its attention to species which are threatened—such as the horseshoe bat or the polar bear—or have already been rendered extinct—like the barbary lion or the bushwren. Here, Chilcott makes highly effective use of what he calls an ‘exaggerated spoken style’, carried out with plenty of dramatic projection by the mixed youth choirs, London Youth Choir and the Young Singers. Some of the numbers are highly enjoyable in and for themselves, for example ‘Lutra lutra’, which celebrates the otter’s ‘slender and lithe long romp’. The final number, ‘Perhaps’ is appropriately ambiguous in its final suspension—musical and emotional.
This work, together with the other more recent ones on CD1, is a fine achievement, and simply adds to Bob Chilcott’s profile as one of the most brilliant composers of vocal music around today. He is also a major ambassador for the simple undying joy of singing.