Merton may be one of Oxford’s most ancient colleges, but the
idea of a choral foundation there dates only from 2006, and
the choir sang its first service in 2008. Peter Phillips and
Benjamin Nicholas are the Directors of Music, which in itself
is testimony to the seriousness and ambition of the venture.
It has paid off, as this, the choir’s first commercial recording,
The disc opens with an extended composition, Gabriel Jackson’s
In the Beginning was the Word, composed for these performers.
It is a setting for choir and organ of the first fourteen verses
of St John’s Gospel, telling of the coming of John the Baptist.
The opening of the work is pensive, the close too, but the central
section is more dramatic, featuring an arrestingly original
treatment of the word “Light”. The choral writing is highly
accomplished throughout, but just as striking is the way the
organ is used. Hardly ever does it accompany in the accepted
sense, but comments instead, reacts and interjects. This work
finds its place squarely within the Anglican musical setting
and tradition, but is at the same time refreshingly unusual
There follow three different musical treatments of the story
of King David and the death in battle of his son, Absalom, as
told in the Second Book of Samuel. The eight-part motet by Nicholas
Gombert, Flemish composer and pupil of Josquin, is a quite extraordinary
musical representation of grief, with great swathes of weeping
phrases surging and overlapping, and with a passage of homophony
all the more powerful for being the only one. Thomas Weelkes,
too, in his short anthem, finds just the right harmonic language,
dissonant yet understated, to express this moving yet ambiguous
tale. I have not felt able to share the widespread enthusiasm
for the music of Eric Whitacre, and however hard I try – and
I really have tried – his extended treatment of substantially
the same text here has not made me change my mind. Comparisons
between one composer’s way and another are often fruitless,
but here, juxtaposed as they are, it is difficult to escape
the feeling that where Gombert and Weelkes achieve just the
right atmosphere, a sort of ecstatic grief kept within the bounds
of dignity and restraint, Whitacre goes over the top in music
of the utmost aural beauty, but which rests on a soft, luxurious
cushion of richness and overindulgence. This is a personal reaction,
and I will not think ill of those who disagree! Each of the
three works poses its own particular problems in performance,
problems that this marvellous choir overcomes with apparent
Three settings of the Nunc dimittis follow. Holst’s rises to
a surprisingly passionate climax after an opening chord that
builds up, voice by voice, and then leads us straight into a
key which is decisively not the one the ear is expecting. Palestrina’s
late setting is largely homophonic, and quite without the restrained,
evening feel that we are used to from the Anglican service.
Is there a momentary lack of conviction at the opening of the
doxology? Is it a separate take? The question marks indicate
my own uncertainty, but whatever the answer this is the only
moment of doubt in two magnificent performances. The choir put
in just as fine a showing in the beautiful setting – without
the doxology – by the Polish composer Pawel Lukaszewski. Tonal
in language and rich in texture, this short piece transports
us from its very first notes into quite another liturgical world.
It is, to my ears, a work of total sincerity and integrity.
The programme closes as it opens, with In the Beginning,
in this case, Copland’s a cappella setting of what at first
sight would seem to be a most intractable text, the first chapter
and seven verses of the second chapter of the Book of Genesis.
This ambitious piece, the longest on the disc, does not give
up its secrets easily, but attentive and repeated listening
reveals the subtlety with which the composer illustrates the
different events of the story. The world, according to Genesis,
was made in six days, and the exultant culmination of that work,
and of Copland’s too, is the creation of mankind. The role of
narrator throughout, in particular intoning the words of God,
is taken by a solo mezzo-soprano. Beth Mackay is outstanding
here, as are those other choir members who take smaller solo
parts in earlier works.
This disc marks the wider launch of a new choral venture that
is bound to endure. These young singers offer a most satisfying
musical experience, singing with admirable weight of sound,
impeccable tuning and fine, clear diction. Only very occasionally,
in certain high-lying phrases, does one have the feeling that
perfection in terms of homogeneity of tone is still to be achieved.
All sung texts are given, the Latin translated into English,
and three people are named as responsible for the excellent
booklet notes. The recording is beautiful, and the very attractive
presentation of the disc is the last detail that makes this
a very desirable issue indeed.