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The Marian Collection
The Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Peter Philips and Benjamin Nicholas
rec. 2-4 July 2014, Merton College Chapel, Oxford
DELPHIAN DCD34144 [67.42]

Perhaps it's the acoustic of Merton College Chapel, so often the venue for recordings. Perhaps it’s the real atmosphere of an ancient church more than a college chapel; it was, after all, a parish church until 1891. Perhaps it’s the fine collection of 15th century stained glass or its musical tradition stretching back before the Reformation. I don’t know but Merton has always been for me a place of pilgrimage. Whenever I visit Oxford I make every effort to pop in, even if just for a few moments.

The choral tradition there has been continuously of a high standard for the last century and probably before that. Merton boasts a choir of enough confidence to commission much new and demanding music. This is most ably demonstrated in this collection which pits the contemporary with the ancient and does so challengingly and in a very interesting way.

Founded by Walter de Merton, Bishop of Rochester, the chapel is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and for its 750th anniversary it was decided to commission four female composers to set a Marian text. These are against the backdrop of earlier settings, spanning a six hundred-year time frame. The Marian texts include, the Magnificat, the Ave Maria and the Alma Redemptoris mater. The former is represented by a setting from the Eton Choirbook by John Nesbitt, only two of whose works survive. This is a very attractive setting and, despite what the notes say, I know that it has had at least three other recordings. The latter is offered in two contrasting settings, one homophonic, by Stravinsky in his more cerebral style and a romantic one, quite well known, by Bruckner.

It’s the new pieces, which especially attract, so let's look briefly at each. The CD starts with a setting by the now Master of the Queen’s Music, Judith Weir. It is in her often quirky and highly original manner. The mood is suitably festive. Quite often it’s the percussive nature of the text that she brings out as in the opening of her Ave Regina caelorum. By contrast Hannah Kendall’s setting of the Regina Caeli throws a new and unexpected light on a text which is often set in a calm and fluid manner. She finds a mystery verging on ‘angst’. This is quite gripping but seems to be bigger in scope than the text really demands.

The Alma redemptoris mater is given in a setting by Dobrinka Tabakova. She is Bulgarian and was fortunate enough to have her anthem ‘Praise’ done at St. Paul’s as part of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. There is an eastern European feel to her setting that gives it a freshness that will undoubtedly attract other choirs.

Perhaps reflecting the cries of our times, Kerry Andrews' setting of the Salve Regina is a passionate ‘Pendereckian’ call on behalf of the many who weep ‘in this vale of tears’. The vocal effects are brilliantly realised by composer and choir but the final impression is one of shallowness. Interestingly the piece is of the same length as Byrd’s five-part setting. I find this performance somewhat hard-driven and even rather heavy going especially the top line.

I was quite taken by another but separate Merton commission, that from Matthew Martin. This is his Salve sedes sapientiae in which he comes up with the happy idea of taking a Latin text beginning ‘Hail, seat of Wisdom’, sung by the main choir and having this reflected in an English text from Proverbs sung by a semi-chorus. It is consequently pensive and contemplative. Then there’s always the late John Tavener whose personal devotion to the Virgin we know through works like ‘The Protecting Veil’. He is represented by three deceptively simple settings including ‘Two hymns, to the Mother of God’. These are each mostly homophonic and melodically memorable. It would be good to listen to these extraordinary pieces whilst gazing at the superb and newly carved statute of the Virgin and child by John Booth unveiled in June 2014 and illustrated in the excellent booklet.

Gabriel Jackson has for some time been making a solid reputation as a composer of vocal works especially choral ones. It's good to have his quite involved and lengthy anthem I say that we are wound with mercy recorded here. It’s a setting of Manley Hopkins, a poet notoriously difficult for composers to match with music. There are two distinct approaches that a composer might take; one is to reflect the sprung rhythm of the poems as Tippett does in ‘The Windhover’ or Rubbra in his orchestral and choral setting ‘Inscape’. Secondly one could completely ignore it as Jackson does here. He cloaks the text in a halo, often of high flute stops and wispy soprano voices. However, the repetition of text is mistaken idea and that, coupled with a lack of clarity of diction — a fault I was also aware of in the Tavener performances — means that for me, this work is misconceived.

Generally the choir is in great form for this disc and it is clearly of the first rank. If you have bought the other three discs they have recently made on Delphian you will know this already. Asking Peter Philips to direct the early works was quite a coup and Benjamin Nicholas keeps up the level of performance in the contemporary ones. There are texts, photographs and a helpful essay on each piece by Alexandra Coghlan.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)

1. Judith WEIR (b.1954) Ave Regina caelorum
2. Giovanni Perluigi de PALESTRINA (c.1525-1594) Alma Redemptoris mater
3. Sir John TAVENER (1944-2013) Mother of God, here I stand
4. Kerry ANDREWS (b.1978) Salve Regina
5. John NESBETT (fl.1474-1488) Magnificat
6. Hannah KENDALL (b.1984) Regina caeli
7. William BYRD (1543-1623) Salve Regina
8. Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) Ave Maria
9. Dobrina TABAKOVA (b.1980) Alma Redemptoris mater
10. Gabriel JACKSON (b.1962) I say that we are wound with mercy
11. Robert PARSONS (c.1535-1572) Ave Maria
12. Sir John TAVENER A hymn to the Mother of God; Hymn for the Dormition of the Mother of God
13. Matthew MARTIN (b.1976) Salve sedes sapientiae
14. Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896) Ave Maria