Merton College was established on 14 September 1264. It takes its name from its founder, Walter de Merton (c. 1205-1277), Lord Chancellor to King Henry III and later Bishop of Rochester.
Though it is among the oldest Oxford Colleges it was surprisingly late in establishing a full choral foundation; that didn’t happen until 2006 but, my goodness, the college has made up for lost time since then. The choir has thirty members - in fact 35 singers are listed as taking part in this recording - and two organ scholars. Most collegiate choirs have a director of music; Merton has two and both Benjamin Nicholas and Peter Phillips (of Tallis Scholars fame) share the conducting duties on this recording. In only a few years the choir has established itself as one of the leading collegiate choirs in the UK. This, its third disc for Delphian, confirms that it is now, surely, one of the jewels in that label’s crown.
With this CD the choir kicks off, slightly early, the musical side of the college’s 750th anniversary celebrations. It’s worth saying that the musical aspect of these celebrations has been long in the planning. For one thing the college chapel is to have a new organ which will be installed by April 2014. In addition the college has commissioned a number of composers to write pieces for the choir under the collective title, The Merton Choirbook. Several of these pieces have already been recorded by the choir and some more are included here. If all this were not enough Gabriel Jackson is writing a major new work, The Passion of the Lord, which the choir will première next year as part of the annual Passiontide at Merton festival.
This programme boldly provides something of a tour d’horizon of church music over the last 750 years although it’s not been possible to go right the way back to 1264; in any case, it’s all but impossible to date a thirteenth-century composition with such certitude. Wisely, in choosing their programme Benjamin Nicholas and Peter Phillips have not sought to put any false constraints on themselves such as seeking out, just for the sake of it, composers with Merton connections. However, pieces by two such composers are included. One is Lennox Berkeley, who was an undergraduate at Merton in the 1920s, reading modern languages. His 1972 motet, Veni sponsa Christi, is a good piece, fastidiously crafted, which deserves to be much better known than I suspect is the case. The other Merton composer is, apparently, John Dunstaple. We read in the booklet that recent scholarship has connected him to the college but, maddeningly, Michael Emery’s otherwise exemplary notes don’t vouchsafe what the connection might be.
I suppose we might say that the other Merton composers are those who have been invited to compose pieces for The Merton Choirbook. Some of these pieces - the Great ‘O’ Antiphons - have already been recorded on the choir’s splendid album Advent at Merton (review). Some more are included here. I like very much the a cappella settings by Ēriks Ešenvalds of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, which are extremely beautiful and carefully composed so that the words are very clear. In his notes Michael Emery perceptively points out that both canticles are ‘first-person’ texts, respectively the songs of the Virgin Mary and of Simeon. Ešenvalds underscores that point in an unusual way by giving the opening phrases of the doxology of each canticle to a solo counter-tenor - the excellent Jeremy Kenyon - accompanied wordlessly by the rest of the choir. Those who have explored the music of this composer through Stephen Layton’s fine Hyperion disc (review) will want to hear these pieces also.
Also from the Choirbook are the works by James Lavino and Ola Gjeilo, both of which impressed me. I’ve heard some of Gjeilo’s music on a Chandos disc (review). There it was his a cappella choral music that most attracted me and Sacred Origins reinforces that favourable impression. Gjeilo takes a text by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and sets it to slow-moving music of no little beauty. The piece starts quietly, builds to a fervent climax and then dies away to the quiet whence it came.
James Lavino is a composer new to me. He uses the same text that was so memorably set by Stanford. He doesn’t make a fluent, flowing setting as Stanford did; rather, he bases his eight-part piece on richness and warmth of texture. I liked this very much.
We also get Stanford’s wonderful six-part setting of Beati quorum via. What a lovely creation it is; all fluidity and light textures, the lines flowing and grateful, both to sing and to hear. The Merton choir gives a lovely performance, as they do of its companion, Justorum animae. It’s good to hear an equally fine rendition of Parry’s masterly There is an old belief, one of his late Songs of Farewell. This is reflective music of resigned melancholy, Parry’s dignified but no less heartfelt response to the carnage wreaked among young men of promise by the Great War. This Merton performance is beautifully sustained and clear.
Moving back in time, there’s a fine performance of Gibbons’ great verse anthem, This is the record of John, in which Jeremy Kenyon distinguishes himself again. The two pieces by Purcell, one allotted to each conductor, are also impressively done. In Remember not, Lord, our offences Nicholas and his singers build the tension in Purcell’s music most effectively.
The pieces written for The Merton Choirbook here receive their first recordings. It’s more surprising, perhaps, to find that William Mundy’s set of Evening Canticles have had to wait over 500 years to achieve a recorded première on this disc. Much more familiar is John Sheppard’s Libera nos, salva nos. Sheppard sets a mere two lines of text and the piece plays for less than three minutes but its span seems significantly greater. In this performance the lines unfold spaciously; no surprise, perhaps, given that these young singers are being directed by one of the pre-eminent conductors in the field.
The contents of this disc include music written over a span of some seven hundred years and a wide variety of styles is encompassed. No matter what music the choir is asked to sing they do so expertly and with great assurance. This is, clearly, a most versatile choir. That, in itself, is a tribute to their two Directors. The singing throughout this programme is superb and in the few items that are not a cappella Anna Steppler, one of the college’s organ scholars, accompanies them stylishly. The chapel at Merton College has become famous as the venue for many recordings by The Tallis Scholars. The college choir is significantly larger than that ensemble but the chapel’s splendid acoustic accommodates and enhances their sound just as pleasingly. I suspect Paul Baxter, the Delphian engineer loves working in this venue; his engineering on this disc is as impressive as on the two previous releases.
This is a very fine survey of some of the church music written during the lifespan to date of Merton College. Of necessity - and rightly - this programme has been largely backward-looking. I hope that before long Delphian will look forward, as it were, with a comprehensive recording of new music from The Merton Choirbook.
Ēriks EŠENVALDS (b. 1977)
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (Merton College Service)* [6:49]
John DUNSTAPLE (c. 1390-1453)
Veni Sancte Spiritus/Veni Creator [5:07]
John SHEPPARD (c. 1515 - 1558)
Libera nos, salva nos [2:42]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
The Woman with the Alabaster Box* [5:19]
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
There is an old belief* [4:54]
William BYRD (1539/40-1623)
Praise our Lord, all ye gentiles [2:45]
Orlando GIBBONS ((1583-1625)
This is the record of John* [4:09]
Sir Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Veni sponsa Christi * [2:44]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Hear my prayer, O Lord [2:14]
Remember not, Lord, our offences* [2:47]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Valiant-for-truth * [5:14]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Justorum animae* [3:19]; Beati quorum via* [3:34]
William MUNDY (c 1529-1591)
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (Second Service ‘in F fa ut’) [8:17]
James LAVINO (b. 1973)
Beati quorum via* [3:36]
Maurice GREENE (1696-1755)
Lord, let me know mine end* [6:09]
Ola GJEILO (b. 1978)
Sacred Origins* [4:26]