The Marian Collection
The Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Peter Phillips, Benjamin Nicholas
Charles Warren (organ)
rec. July 2014, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
Texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34144 [67:42]

This disc is advertised by Dephian as “the fourth and final themed recording in a series …” I hope that the use of the word “final” does not mean a termination of the relationship between choir and label. That would be something greatly to be regretted given the excellence of the three previous albums: In the Beginning (review), Advent at Merton (review) and The Merton Collection: Merton College at 750 (review). This latest disc is devoted to settings of texts in honour of the Blessed Virgin. Will it match the quality of its predecessors?

There are one or two trends that run through all of the four programmes that this choir has recorded for Delphian. One is the luxury of having two Directors of Music so that the young singers can benefit not only from the expert direction of Benjamin Nicholas in the twentieth- and twenty-first century items but also from the availability one of the foremost directors of Renaissance choral music, namely Peter Phillips. Both are on duty here. Another trend – and it’s a vital one – is that this series has presented a whole sequence of premiere recordings of pieces specially composed for this choir – and how lucky they have been to be challenged in this way by a generous spectrum of prominent composers. Most but not all of these new works have been composed for The Merton Choirbook, a hugely valuable project to commission a wide variety of liturgical pieces to mark the 750th anniversary of the foundation of the College in 1264.

Four Choirbook commissions are included here in the shape of settings of the four Marian anthems that are sung or said during the Office of Compline at various times during the liturgical year: appropriately, all four are by female composers. Judith Weir’s piece is bracing and celebratory; it makes an excellent opener for the programme. The music is strongly rhythmical for the most part, though a more legato section for high voices towards the end makes a nice contrast. The setting by Kerry Andrews of Salve Regina seems to take its cue from the third and fourth lines of the text, which translate as ‘To you we cry, exiled children of Eve/To you we send up our sighs …’ This piece is a plea for intercession. It’s an uncompromising, challenging composition. Though I’m not sure I care for all the vocal glissandi, which presumably illustrate the ‘vale of tears’, I found it a most interesting setting.

I’m afraid I don’t care at all for Hannah Kendall’s Regina caeli. In her very good notes Alexandra Coghlan states that the composer has captured the ‘single-minded, rapt quality’ of this text, which is used at Easter. I disagree completely. I could discern neither a rapt quality nor any sense of rejoicing in this music in which the vocal writing uses a very wide range with the sopranos in particular required to sing many high-lying passages. On the other hand I was greatly impressed with Dobrinka Tabakova’s highly imaginative Alma Redemptoris mater. The piece makes great play with dancing triads, initially given to the female voices, around which other musical material is skilfully woven. This is an intriguing piece which manages at one and the same time to sound very old and very new.

The recital also includes some older settings of these Compline antiphons. Palestrina’s timeless setting of Alma Redemptoris mater contains flowing, ecstatic music and Peter Phillips leads the choir in a fine account of it. Phillips is also at the helm for Byrd’s Salve Regina. The music is cast in up to five parts and here the various vocal lines are presented with very good clarity.

Under Peter Phillips the choir also sings the Magnificat by John Nesbett, a composer about whom not a lot is known; only two compositions by him survive, it seems. It’s a piece from the Eton Choirbook and I’ve encountered it before in the series of recordings from that collection made quite some time ago by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen (review). That may well be the only other recording. That’s rather surprising because it’s valuable and very well done here. Nesbett’s is an alternatim setting and he divided his polyphonic verses into as many as five parts. These polyphonic verses are often very elaborate and also demanding of the singers, both in terms of the vocal range and the florid nature of the writing. Merton’s performance of this flamboyant piece is very assured and spirited.

One other piece is in the hands of Peter Phillips; he leads a lovely rendition of Robert Parsons’ wonderful and technically accomplished Ave Maria. I have the impression – perhaps wrongly – that he moves the music forward in a more purposeful way than some other conductors I’ve heard. This does not disadvantage the music in any way. Two other highly contrasting settings of the same text are directed by Benjamin Nicholas. The version by Stravinsky is surprisingly simple in style. The writing is almost hypnotic thanks to the composer’s deliberate decision to discipline himself by limiting the musical material he uses. Bruckner’s typically dedicated seven-part setting is more overtly devotional. Both pieces are very well done here.

Besides the four Marian antiphons discussed earlier two other pieces receive first recordings on this disc. Salve sedes sapientiae by Matthew Martin is part of the Merton Choirbook project. It was commissioned by the College Chaplain, Dr. Simon Jones for the service when an important new statue was dedicated in the Merton chapel in 2014. The piece focuses on Mary’s title as Seat of Wisdom and a refrain addressing her as such, sung by the main choir, alternates with short passages from the Book of Proverbs sung by a semi chorus. The result is a short, concise and effective piece. Gabriel Jackson’s I say that we are wound with mercy is the only offering on this programme which uses organ accompaniment. Jackson sets some lines by Gerard Manley Hopkins and Alexandra Coghlan is spot-on in referring to the poet’s ‘heady, dizzying word-painting’. To this, as she suggests, Jackson responds most effectively. The piece opens with an extended passage in which unison sopranos sing a long, ecstatic, melismatic line accompanied by the organ. This material reappears a couple of times, alternating with equally impressive sections for full choir. It’s a very attractive piece and it seems to me that Jackson’s music complements and enhances the words very well indeed.

Three pieces by Sir John Tavener complete the programme. All are good examples of what I’m sure was the composer’s forte, namely short devotional works for unaccompanied choir. The three performances here are all good, though perhaps in A Hymn to the Mother of God I might have wished for the choir to be a little more distant from the microphones; the climaxes are just a little too present and powerful. Mother of God, here I stand is a short anthem extracted from Tavener’s epic The Veil of the Temple. The present performance sounds very different from what we hear on Stephen Layton’s recording of the concert version of the full work (review). There the piece is sung by a much larger choir in a significantly more resonant acoustic – and in a different key. Good though this is, I feel that this Merton rendition gets closer to the heart of this exquisite miniature, not least through the sense of intimacy. This is perfectly poised and controlled, and along with the Jackson and the Nesbett, are the very best performances on the disc.

In just a few years since it was established on its present basis the Choir of Merton College has firmly established itself as one of the very best of the Oxbridge collegiate choirs. Benjamin Nicholas and Peter Phillips have done a marvellous job in training these young singers to such a consistently high standard. The achievement is all the more impressive since, as with all student choirs, the membership is subject to some changes every academic year. This latest disc maintains the very high standards of vocal accomplishment that has come to be the hallmark of their collaboration with Delphian. Furthermore, the programme is as interesting as the previous ones have been with an ideal mix of excellent new music along with more familiar, yet not routine, fare.

In terms of presentation this release ticks all the boxes for me. The booklet is very stylish and includes excellent notes. As for the sound, it seems to me that engineer Paul Baxter definitely has the measure of the wonderful acoustic of the Merton chapel and this recording is beyond reproach.

As I said at the start, I hope very much that this CD does not mark the end of the Delphian/ Merton relationship, merely a way-station. Making recordings is an expensive business but it is to be hoped that it will be possible to underwrite further collaborations since the partnership between college and label has been so fruitful to date. In particular, the Merton Choirbook now comprises over fifty pieces and though these four discs have included a generous selection there remain many new pieces that have yet to be brought to a wider audience through a recording. If the standard of inspiration is as high as is the case with those pieces so far committed to disc then further recordings would be both welcome and necessary. Perhaps the most urgent need is a recording of Gabriel Jackson’s The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (review).

To answer the question I posed at the top of this review, this CD most definitely does match the quality of the previous issues in this series. As we wait in hope of further Merton College recordings this latest excellent and stimulating disc will sustain us nicely.

John Quinn
Judith WEIR (b. 1954) Ave Regina caelorum
Giovanni Perluigi da PALESTRINA (c. 1525-1594) Alma Redemptoris mater
Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013) Mother of God, here I stand
Kerry ANDREWS (b. 1978) Salve Regina
John NESBETT (fl. 1475-1488) Magnificat
Hannah KENDALL (b. 1984) Regina caeli
William BYRD (1539/40-1623) Salve Regina
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Ave Maria
Dobrinka TABAKOVA (b. 1980) Alma Redemptoris mater
Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962) I say that we are wound with mercy
Robert PARSONS (c. 1535-1572) Ave Maria
Sir John TAVENER A Hymn to the Mother of God
Hymn for the Dormition of the Mother of God
Matthew MARTIN (b. 1976) Salve sedes sapientiae
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Ave Maria


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