In the Beginning
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
In the Beginning was the Word
(2008) [13:22]
Nicolas GOMBERT (c. 1495-c1560)
Lugebat David Absalon
Thomas WEELKES (1576-1623)
When David Heard
Eric WHITACRE (b.1970)
When David Heard
Giovanni Luigi da PALESTRINA (c. 1525-1594)
Nunc Dimittis
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Nunc Dimittis
Pawel LUKASZEWSKI (b. 1968)
Nunc Dimittis
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
In the Beginning
* [17:51]
*Beth Mackay (mezzo)
Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Peter Philips; Benjamin Nicholas
Natasha Tyrwhitt-Drake (organ)
rec. 25-26 April 2011, Merton College Chapel, Oxford DDD
Original texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34072 [69:14]
Last year, when I interviewed Peter Philips and Steve Smith for MusicWeb International’s Seen and Heard the conversation touched briefly on the new choral foundation at Merton College, founded by Peter Philips. He expressed the hope then that this new choir would make recordings, which might entail some contemporary music. This new Delphian disc represents the new choir’s first recording venture and the fascinatingly-themed programme includes some very fine music of our own time.
The choir consists of thirty singers: eleven sopranos, five each of altos and tenors, and nine basses. Out of these thirty, eighteen are choral scholars and the remainder are volunteer singers. The choir was established only in late 2008. Let’s not beat about the bush: on the evidence of this disc Peter Philips and Benjamin Nicholas, the college’s two Directors of Music, have trained a choir that can already take its place among the best that Oxbridge has to offer. The singing is splendidly disciplined - yet never regimented - with excellent tuning, balance and diction. As one gets from the best student choirs, there’s a freshness to the tone and no sense of heaviness. On the other hand, even though these are young voices one never feels any lack of weight in the sound - perhaps the fact that nearly one third of the singers are basses helps here. Throughout the entire programme one has the feeling of flexibility and, crucially, of complete commitment to the music. In summary, I enjoyed and admired the singing in equal measure. 
The programme is chosen with discrimination and intelligence. How appropriate to build a debut disc around the theme ‘In the Beginning’. Copland’s marvellous a cappella setting of the first twenty-seven verses of the Book of Genesis is a logical choice for inclusion - even if, for very good reasons, it doesn’t begin the programme. The performance is splendid with Beth Mackay as fine a soloist as I can recall hearing in the work. Her vocal timbre is just right. She sings with fine clarity of tone and of diction and there’s a delightful warmth to her singing as well. She projects the music vividly, not least at the passage beginning at ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven’ (from 5:16) where she leads the choir in dancing, lively rhythms, all crisply enunciated. The climaxes in this piece are thrilling, even exultant, and I enjoyed this performance enormously.
At the other end of the programme - truly at The Beginning - is a new work by Gabriel Jackson. The more I hear of Jackson’s choral music the more impressed I am. This new piece is a setting of words from the opening of St John’s Gospel. I’ve always found them tremendously potent but, so far as I know, they have been set to music comparatively rarely. Jackson’s setting is magnificent. It begins quietly, the music mysteriously sombre and awestruck. I love the way that the composer emphasises certain key words harmonically, not least the use of a simple triad to which he sets the word ‘God’. The choral writing - and the imaginative organ part - provides a powerful aural suggestion of gradual movement from darkness to light.
There’s a very effective - and well sung - passage for solo soprano and tenor, gently accompanied by organ (4:00-6:03) before a section of much more complex music for the choir. Here the harmonies for the singers suggest to me flashes of blinding white light with blazes from the organ too. This leads to an extended climactic phrase on the words ‘which lighteth every man that cometh into the world’. There follows (from 8:24) a return to the awestruck, subdued mood in which the work began and the very end is raptly beautiful, attaining a feeling of ecstatic wonder. This is an important, eloquent work and the performance it receives is, so far as I can judge, worthy of it in every respect.
I wish that I could be as enthusiastic about the piece by Eric Whitacre. This is a setting of the same words as those that we find in the celebrated anthem by Thomas Weelkes that precedes it on this disc. It starts promisingly enough with the unaccompanied choir singing slow, grave homophonic material. Whitacre then adds layers of choral texture and builds up the tension most impressively. Unfortunately, or so it seems to me, after a short tenor solo the piece then loses its way. In the extended section between 2:47 and 9:08 a series of musical fragments are repeated several times and the music just seems to me to become mired in an excessively elongated passage of musical effects. I expect I’m missing something but I sense no development. Perhaps matters aren’t helped because Whitacre is setting a concise text so he’s reduced to repeating words over and over - would that his music was as concise as the words! At 9:08 an impassioned climax is reached, after which the music of the opening is revisited. I’m afraid that the piece is far too long for its material and it’s notable that Weelkes’ setting of the identical text is some nine minutes shorter and, for my money, significantly more effective as a result even though I readily acknowledge that Weelkes was writing in a completely different era and idiom. Whitacre makes strenuous demands on his singers and the Merton choir seems to cope with everything valiantly.
The Weelkes piece receives a strong, dramatic performance. I’ve heard it performed in more reflective fashion but I like this performance very much. The Gombert anthem, in eight parts, is a piece I didn’t know but it’s very fine and Gombert’s rich choral textures are here delivered with exemplary clarity.
It was a good idea to have not just three pieces around the David and Absalom theme but also three very different settings of the Nunc Dimittis. All three are done very well. The clean lines of Palestrina’s music present a good contrast to the complexities of Eric Whitacre’s contemporary writing. The Palestrina is given a committed, affirmative reading and the choir also brings great confidence to Holst’s fine response to the Canticle, not least in the exuberant doxology. A little while ago I was deeply impressed by the Nunc Dimittis of Pawel Lukaszewski in a recording by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (review). I’m delighted to find this hauntingly beautiful piece included here. The setting sounds deceptively simple but I’m sure it’s not. I love, in particular, the really effective harmonic shift at the words ‘lumen ad revelationem gentium’ [2:47]. The piece is expertly done here and the Merton choir need not fear comparison with the outstanding account by Stephen Layton’s Cambridge choir.
This is a superb disc. The singing is out of the top drawer and engineer Paul Baxter has recorded the choir wonderfully, using the lovely, resonant acoustic of Merton College Chapel to telling effect. I would say that this disc is a most auspicious debut for the Merton College Choir but perhaps it’s more fitting to crib from the title of the disc and describe it as a most auspicious beginning. In any event, I hope that we shall soon have more recordings from this excellent new choir. Bravo!
John Quinn  

A most auspicious debut on CD for the Merton College Choir.