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 Recording of the Week  Christmas Carols from Bob Chilcott and others

I’ve got three contrasting Christmas discs to tell you about this week, starting with a beautiful new collection of carols from Bob Chilcott and Commotio. An Oxbridge choir with a difference, Commotio was formed in 1999 by recent music graduate Matthew Berry, with the intention of exploring contemporary choral repertoire: with no college-specific affiliation, the singers are a mixture of ‘town and gown’, and the current line-up of singers includes doctors, lawyers and accountants as well as talented student singers.

Bob Chilcott
Bob Chilcott

Fifteen years later, many of the original members remain, though ‘new blood’ has been acquired along the way - the sense of continuity in the ensemble is palpable, rather like listening to a well-established string-quartet who’ve been revitalised by a new member. (Collegiate choirs, of course, must contend with a much more rapid turn-over as members graduate and move on each year).

This latest collaboration with Oxford-based composer Bob Chilcott proves an ideal showcase for Commotio’s clean, unfussy sound and pristine intonation. Somewhat more accessible than their usual avant-garde repertoire, it all feels unmistakeably ‘Christmassy’ from the first phrase: Chilcott has a happy knack for a memorable melody, and his settings of often familiar texts feel so natural that they’ll feel like old favourites after just one hearing!

I caught up with Bob last week, courtesy of his publishers Oxford University Press, where he gleefully informed me that he is ‘a sucker for Christmas!’ and traced his enthusiasm for all things seasonal back to his time as a chorister and later choral scholar at King’s College Cambridge, where works such as Howells’s ‘Here is the little door’ had a profound effect on his musical imagination. The works on the disc also testify to his love of working with many different types of choir, having been written for ensembles of various sizes and abilities (you can click here to purchase some of Chilcott’s Christmas sheet music, should you feel inspired to try some yourself!).

Chilcott’s former colleagues The King’s Singers also have a new Christmas disc to offer, with a rather unexpected guest-star in the form of Albrecht Mayer, principal oboe of the Berlin Philharmonic. The repertoire is a collection of musical stocking-fillers, classical and not-so-classical: the Evening Prayer from Hansel and Gretel sits cheek-by-jowl with a high-camp arrangement of ‘Jingle Bells’ (though the inclusion of one of the few upbeat songs from Schubert’s Winterreise did seem a little bit too incongruous to me!). More cheese than a Wensleydale-and-cranberry sandwich, then, but it’s all done with bags of panache and good humour – the perfect tree-dressing or present-wrapping soundtrack.

If it still feels a little early for Christmas, I heartily recommend Clare College Cambridge’s new disc of music for Advent: it’s an eclectic collection, and on paper it did look as if some of the stylistic juxtapositions might be a little jarring. I stand corrected: woven into a seamless whole with connecting plainchant, the entire sequence seems to develop organically, so that following a stark, adventurous new work by Roderick Williams (the much-loved baritone, also a fine composer in his own right) with a rapt account of Michael Praetorius’s famous ‘Es ist ein Ros’ seems the most natural thing in the world. As with the famous annual King’s Carol Service, the blend of traditional and contemporary elements is ideally judged: highlights include a luminous setting of ‘I sing of a maiden’ by the choir’s young director Graham Ross and one of the most spellbinding accounts of Warlock’s ‘Bethlehem Down’ I’ve ever heard (the Clare choir do pianissimo to perfection, and indeed the singing throughout is superb).

Bob Chilcott: The Rose in the Middle of Winter

Commotio, Matthew Berry

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC

Albrecht Mayer & The King's Singers: Let It Snow

Albrecht Mayer (oboe), The King’s Singers (Download not available in all countries)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Veni Emmanuel: Music for Advent

The Choir of Clare College Cambridge, Graham Ross

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC