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Advent at Merton
Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Peter Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas.
*Anna Steppler (organ)
rec. 14-16 April, 2012, Merton College Chapel, Oxford. DDD
Texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34122 [56:21]

Experience Classicsonline

Matthew MARTIN
(b. 1976) Ecce concipies [2:10]
C.14th German, arr, David BLACKWELL (b. 1961) Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming [3:26]
William BYRD (1539/40 – 1623) Rorate caeli desuper [4:13]
James MacMILLAN (b. 1959) Advent Antiphon [5:40]
Judith WEIR (b. 1954) Drop down, ye heavens, from above [1:47]
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621) Alvus tumescit virginis* [1:49]
Seven Advent Antiphons
Howard SKEMPTON (b. 1947) O Sapientia [1:24]
John TAVENER (b. 1944) O Adonai [1:20]
Rihards DUBRA (b. 1964) O Radix Jesse [2:25]
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962) O Clavis David [3:36]
Cecilia McDOWALL (b. 1951) O Oriens
Matthew MARTIN O Rex Gentium [3:45]
Eriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977) O Emmanuel [2:29]
Anton HEILLER (1923-1979) Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen* [3:18]
William BYRD Ecce Virgo concipiet [1:35]
Michael PRAETORIUS arr. Jan SANDSTRÖM (b. 1954) Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen [4:29]
Tomás Luis de VICTORIA (1548-1611) Ave Maria [4:17]
James MacMILLAN O Radiant Dawn [3:59]

Merton College, though it was founded as long ago as 1264, established a full time choral foundation only in 2008, the first such foundation at an Oxbridge college for some time, so far as I know. The college may have been relatively late in taking such a step but the authorities are certainly making up for lost time. The choir has thirty singers and Benjamin Nicholas, one of two Music Directors has just moved from a part-time post there to the full-time post of Organist and Director of Music with effect from September 2012 – Peter Phillips will continue to be Director of Music also. I think I’m right in saying that the college is also seeking to raise funds to install a new organ.
Most ambitious of all, however, is The Merton Choirbook, a significant project to commission a large number of new choral works from contemporary composers in the run-up to 2014 when the college will be 750 years old. The Seven Advent Antiphons, included here, form part of that project and if the quality of the music and the eminence of the composers involved with these Antiphons is maintained then the Choirbook is likely to be, as it says in the booklet, “one of the most comprehensive collections of liturgical music from the early twenty-first century.”
The so-called ‘Great O’ Antiphons are said or sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers – or Evensong – on each of the seven days between 17 and 23 December. At Merton College, however, the antiphons perform a different, or additional, function. The climax of the college’s Advent Service is the reading of the Gospel of the Annunciation as related by St. Luke and each year one of these antiphons precedes and follows the Gospel reading – remember, the vacation will have started before 17 December so, presumably, the choir may not be around to sing the ‘Great O’ antiphons on the appointed days. The College Chaplain, Rev. Dr. Simon Jones, has commissioned these new antiphons, as part of The Merton Choirbook and one will be heard each year during the Advent service. I hope Dr. Jones is well pleased with the fruits of his commission for the antiphons, which are all very different from each other, strike me as a very fine set of pieces and a significant addition to the liturgical repertoire. They seem to grow in complexity from what is aptly described in the booklet as the “charged simplicity” of Howard Skempton’s setting right through to the much more challenging textures of the pieces by Cecilia McDowall and Matthew Martin. That said, the final antiphon, by Eriks Ešenvalds does appear, at least on the surface, to revert to a greater simplicity of utterance: his atmospheric setting pits a hauntingly timeless alto solo – sung with fine sensitivity by Jeremy Kenyon – against a gentle choral background, well described by annotator Alexandra Coghlan as an “harmonic web.” All seven antiphons impressed me very much but I was especially taken with two. Cecilia McDowall’s contribution is very arresting and impressive. She employs some fascinating harmonies and her music is a tremendously effective response to the words. The Matthew Martin antiphon is also mightily impressive, featuring some dramatic writing for unaccompanied choir: Alexandra Coghlan’s comparison with the motets of Bruckner is apt. Mention must also be made of Gabriel Jackson’s setting. As so often with this composer’s vocal music one feels one is listening to light translated into music.
All the other vocal pieces by contemporary composers are well worth hearing. David Blackwell’s arrangement of Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen in an English translation starts off innocuously enough. It sounds, dare one say, like a pretty conventional Anglican anthem but Blackwell surprises – and delights – with increasingly ambitious variants on the basic material as the second and third stanzas of the piece unfold. This old German chorale, in Praetorius’s four-part harmonisation, comes in for further effective treatment from Jan Sandström who has Praetorius’s chorale sung against a background of hummed cluster chords; it’s most effective and wonderfully tranquil.
I’m glad, but not surprised, to find music by James MacMillan included for he’s surely one of the most interesting contemporary composers of liturgical music. His O Radiant Dawn is well known, and no wonder. It’s a fine setting of an English translation of one of the ‘Great O’ antiphons – ‘O Oriens’ – The Merton choir delivers an ardent performance. MacMillan’s Advent Antiphon is a splendid example of his pragmatic and effective approach to church music, writing good quality music that can involve even a musically unsophisticated congregation without any dreadful dumbing down. Here, the congregational part is a fairly straightforward – but good and memorable – unison antiphon. The musical ‘grit’ is in the form of much more adventurous and demanding solo verses for a cantor – the excellent tenor, Christopher Watson in this instance. Would that more composers would write such interesting yet eminently performable music for use in today’s Roman Catholic liturgy!
Merton College, which seems to be doing nothing by halves when it comes to music, has not one but two Directors of Music. So not only can the singers work with Benjamin Nicholas but also they have the opportunity to work with one of the foremost exponents of Renaissance choral music in the shape of Peter Philips, a longstanding Fellow of Merton. Philips directs the choir in the items by Byrd and Victoria – and in the Tavener antiphon – and, as you’d expect, the results are excellent. Particularly splendid is Victoria’s double choir Marian piece, of which the choir gives a poised and polished account.
There are two small organ solos, by Praetorius and Heiller, and the Organ Scholar, Anna Steppler, does these very well.
It’s only about a year ago that Merton College Choir announced their arrival on the recording scene with their splendid debut disc, In the Beginning (review). This follow-up disc is every bit as distinguished, both in terms of terrifically high performance standards and a discerning choice of repertoire. Though the college may be a relative newcomer to the ranks of Oxbridge choral foundations it is making up for lost time with a vengeance and this choir is now a force to be reckoned with.
Delphian’s Paul Baxter is clearly becoming very accustomed to recording in the wonderful acoustics of Merton College Chapel. His recordings, wherever they are made, usually achieve an excellent balance between clarity and ambience and this one is no exception. Delphian maintain their impeccable standards as regards documentation: the notes, a collaboration between Dr. Simon Jones and Alexandra Coghlan, are first class.
Every year a handful of new recordings stands head and shoulders above the flood of discs of music for the Christmas season. This is one such release for 2012.
John Quinn






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