In the Stillness - A Merton Christmas
The Girl Choristers and Lower Voices of Merton College, Oxford/Benjamin Nicholas (organ solo)
Simon Hogan (organ); Catrin Meek (harp)
rec. 2021, Merton College Chapel, Oxford
DELPHIAN DCD34262 
Merton College, Oxford already boasts one of the finest SATB collegiate choirs in the UK and to that establishment was added, in 2016, a group of Girl Choristers. There are 24 Choristers (actually, 22 are listed as singing on this CD); they sing a weekly service of Choral Evensong in the College Chapel during term time and on certain occasions they combine with the College Choir. I’ve heard them once before: in 2019 they took part in another Delphian album, Sleeper’s Prayer (review), but this is their first CD in their own right.
The programme has been shrewdly chosen in more ways than one. There are several items that feature the Girl Choristers only and others where they join with the other three voice parts in the choir. There’s also a pleasing blend of the familiar and unfamiliar. I think Benjamin Nicholas has got the programme balance just right.
Among familiar items we find John Joubert’s invigorating Torches in a performance that’s full of energy. Familiar too is Michael Head’s simple and innocent The Little Road to Bethlehem. It’s sung in unison by the girls and they do it beautifully. I appreciate the crispness with which the full choir delivers Up! Good Christian folk, and the sheer joyfulness that is brought to Rutter’s Star Carol is hard to resist. I thought Holst’s In the Bleak Mid-winter would come under the heading of ‘familiar’ but it does so only up to a point. It’s performed here in what annotator Michael Emery describes as a “gentle elaboration” by the organist John Bertalot (b 1931), who served as Organist of Blackburn Cathedral and then crossed The Pond to fill the same post at Trinity Church, Princeton. His arrangement extends both to an important independent organ part and, especially in the final verse, choral parts. I’ve always felt Holst’s setting is very much a second best behind Harold Darke’s version but Bertalot’s tasteful work makes ‘Cranham’ much more interesting. While we’re on the subject of British cathedral organists, another who features here is Michael Nicholas (b 1938), who was Organist of Norwich Cathedral from 1971 to 1994. He is Benjamin Nicholas’s father and it was a very nice gesture from son to father to include Michael’s arrangement of Infant Holy. It’s a very nice a cappella arrangement which fully justifies its inclusion.
Moving to less familiar fare, I was rather taken with Elgar’s Angelus. Though I’m a great Elgar devotee I don’t recall hearing this before, but I learned from Michael Kennedy’s biography of the composer that it dates from 1909 and was Elgar’s
Op 56. He wrote it while on holiday in Italy and though the words are said to have been adapted by Elgar from a Tuscan original, Michael Emery says that they may actually be by Elgar himself. The song, for SATB a cappella, is charming, and as the opening track on the programme both music and performance encourage the listener to explore the disc further.
A little later in the programme we find the first of the pieces by contemporary composers: Errollyn Wallen’s Peace on earth. This is sung by the girls in unison, accompanied by an ostinato harp which, as Michael Emery says, is suggestive of snowflakes falling. The music is delicate and haunting; I loved it. Gabriel Jackson is a composer who I’ve long admired and I was delighted to find a piece by him on the programme. Hush! My Dear sets words by Isaac Watts for unaccompanied choir. The melody is highly appealing and interest is enhanced by the unexpected note values. It’s a most attractive piece which receives an ideal performance. Another composer whose choral music I’ve admired for several years is David Bednall. Sweet was the song is part of a suite of Christmas pieces which he composed in 2018 for Benenden School. The piece is sung by the Girl Choristers with organ accompaniment; they sing in unison until nearly the end of the piece. The melody is winning and makes a strong impression, especially when sung with the tonal purity and freshness that the Merton girls bring to it.
Midway through the programme Benjamin Nicholas moves from the conductor’s stand to the console of the fine Dobson organ in the Merton College chapel to play two chorale preludes from Bach’s Orgelbuchlein. In both cases he uses adroitly chosen registrations so that each strand of Bach’s texture emerges with fine clarity. In the second one, 'Vom Himmel kam der Engel schar’, I love the way that the scalic passages that surround the chorale melody are made to burble happily. In between the two Bach pieces comes Sing to the infant boy. This is an English adaptation by Geoffrey Webber of an extract from a Christmas cantata by Charpentier. It makes a good foil to the Bach pieces, and the Merton organ, this time played by Simon Horgan, sounds splendid in the instrumental interpolations after each choral verse. These three items make a pleasing little programme within a programme.
I should mention two other items, which are very different from each other. The very title of In the stillness by Sally Beamish implies calmness and that’s exactly what the music achieves. This is a gentle, thoughtful composition and it receives a lovely performance. The growing limbs of God the Son by the organist, Christopher Dearnley is somewhat unexpected in that it’s a hymn but one that is sung unaccompanied. Dearnley’s piece is a setting of words by George Boone Timms (1910-1997). I’d not heard of this author before but Michael Emery tells us that he was an Anglican priest. Emery describes the setting as “beautifully crafted” and I wouldn’t disagree. Given that it’s unaccompanied, I wonder if Dearnley designed it for use as an Office Hymn.
This is a very rewarding disc and I enjoyed it very much indeed. The programme is interesting and well-devised, while the execution is excellent. The Girl Choristers of Merton College may not have the same level of experience and vocal maturity that the sopranos of the College Choir possess but they are still extremely accomplished singers. And any lack of experience is more than compensated by the freshness and purity of tone with which they sing. They combine very well indeed with the more senior singers of the College Choir and in the items that they sing by themselves they are a consistent delight to hear. This is a most auspicious debut CD and I hope we’ll hear more of them. As I listened, I reflected that these girls, who are drawn from various schools around Oxford, have such a fantastic opportunity to be part of the Merton choral foundation. Their vocal coach, Carys Lane and her team have obviously done a great job in training them. Benjamin Nicholas conducts the singers expertly and I also enjoyed his solo Bach performances. In a number of the vocal items Simon Hogan is the excellent organist and I also appreciated the artistry of harpist Catrin Meek in two of the pieces.
Michael Emery’s notes are ideal, as is the recorded sound which Paul Baxter has provided.
Every year the market is flooded with discs of Christmas music but this is one that in terms of interest and quality stands out from the crowd.
Sir Edward Elgar: Angelus
Michael Head: The Little Road to Bethlehem
Mykola Leontovich: Carol of the Bells
Errollyn Wallen: Peace on earth
Sir Lennox Berkeley: I sing of a maiden
John Ireland: The Holy Boy
John Rutter: Star carol
Trad, arr Michael Nicholas: Infant Holy
Gabriel Jackson: Hush! My Dear
Johann Sebastian Bach: Chorale Prelude, BWV605 'Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich'*
Marc-Antione Charpentier: Sing to the infant boy
Johann Sebastian Bach: Chorale Prelude, BWV607 'Vom Himmel kam der Engel schar'*
Trad, arr Edward Higginbottom: Rocking Carol
Benjamin Britten: A New Year Carol
Piae Cantiones arr. G R Woodward: Up! Good Christian folk
Sally Beamish: In the stillness
John Joubert: Torches
Christopher Dearnley: The growing limbs of God the Son (Hymn)
Gustav Holst, arr. John Bertalot: In the Bleak Mid-winter (Cranham)
Michael Praetorius & Melchior Vulpius: There is a flower springing
Michael Praetorius, arr G R Woodward / D Willcocks Come, thou Redeemer of the earth
David Bednall: Sweet was the song (from Make We Merry)
John Rutter: Candlelight carol
Published: November 21, 2022