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Viri Galilaei - Favourite Anthems from Merton
Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
Te Deum [8:51]
Thomas TALLIS (c.1505–1585)
If ye love me [2:10]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857–1934)
Give unto the Lord [8:31]
Thomas MORLEY (1557/8–1602)
Nolo mortem peccatoris [2:54]
John RUTTER (b. 1945)
The Lord bless you and keep you [2:41]
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848–1918)
Blest pair of sirens [10:46]
William BYRD (1539/40–1623)
Diliges Dominum [2:58]
Roger QUILTER (1877–1953)
Lead us, heavenly Father [2:21]
Thomas TALLIS O nata lux [1:52]
Gerald FINZI (1901–1956)
Lo, the full, final sacrifice [15:20]
Sir William HARRIS (1883–1973)
Faire is the heaven [5:24]
William BYRD Ave verum corpus [3:44]
Patrick GOWERS (1936–2014)
Viri Galilaei [7:57]
Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Benjamin Nicholas and Peter Phillips
rec. 28-30 June 2015, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
Texts and English translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34174 [75:36]

This is the fifth disc that the Merton College choir has made for Delphian. I’ve heard and greatly enjoyed the previous issues (review ~ review~ review ~ review). At the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, I fancy that by comparison with the previous releases, this latest album contains more in the way of familiar fare, as its title may suggest. Not that I’m complaining, since this programme includes a good number of pieces that are not only great anthems but which also I would regard as “favourites”. I think the reason why the programme is founded on more traditional ground this time is that the earlier albums have each included a number of new pieces commissioned as part of that remarkable project, The Merton Choirbook. There’s one such piece here, namely Jonathan Dove’s setting of the Te Deum, but most of the other anthems are securely established in the repertoire of Anglican choirs.

Merton College is unusual in having two Directors of Music. One of them is Peter Phillips and who better could the students have to guide them through the Renaissance and Tudor repertoire. There are four such pieces here and all but one of them – Byrd’s Diliges Dominum – are directed by Phillips. Tallis’s If ye love me is an absolute gem of prayerful music and here it emerges relaxed and elegant under Phillips’ expert guidance. Much the same could be said of the same composer’s O nata lux. Byrd’s Ave verum corpus is a miniature masterpiece and the choir sings it very well indeed. Benjamin Nicholas takes charge for Byrd’s Diliges Dominum and is no less effective in his direction. This anthem is a musical palindrome and I love the way that in his notes Michael Emery says of it that it is “as intricate a piece of musical clockwork as can be imagined.” In a very good performance a listener should be able to focus on the quality and expressiveness of Byrd’s music – and on the words – rather than on the composer’s technical prowess: this is such a performance.

Benjamin Nicholas directs the remainder of the programme and so he gets the “big stuff”. Anthems don’t come on a much bigger scale than Parry’s masterly Blest pair of sirens, a piece which I never tire of hearing, still less of singing. At the start the sound of the Merton Chapel’s impressive new Dobson organ is full of splendour. Yet, despite the fullness of the sound Peter Shepherd, one of the College’s two organ scholars, manages the instrument’s resources very skilfully so that clarity is always maintained. The choir sings with great commitment and one thing that I like very much is their crystal clear diction – a feature of the entire programme. Parry’s often-complex part writing is delivered with clarity too. The soprano’s tone at “O, may we soon again” is delightful and once the double-choir fugal writing starts, at “To live with Him”, Nicholas and his choir achieve a wonderful build-up. The tension increases incrementally until the splendid moment when the climax is released. In the closing moments the depth of organ tone is fantastic.

Another piece on a grand scale is Elgar’s Give unto the Lord (1914). This was composed for the annual Festival of the Sons of Clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral so it was designed for huge spaces and a substantial organ. The Merton chapel is much smaller and the choir fills it with sound while the organ resounds mightily. There’s a great deal of opulence in this piece, as you might expect, and the writing is often dramatic. In the midst of all this, therefore, it comes as a bit of a surprise when Elgar backs off and sets the lines beginning “In his temple doth every one speak of his glory” in hushed, awestruck tones. Though the resplendent music soon returns the piece ends with another tranquil passage. This Merton performance is a vivid one.

Vivid too, but in a completely different way, is Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice. As Michael Emery says, Finzi is much better known for his solo songs though in the context of this present piece, which is his most substantial church composition, I think we shouldn’t lose sight of his many fine part songs. What undeniably links the solo – and choral – songs with Lo, the full, final sacrifice is Finzi’s wonderful feeling for words and his discernment in selecting texts to set. Here, typically, he sets a complex, image-rich text, by Richard Crashaw (c1613-1649) after St Thomas Aquinas. The result is a magnificent and varied anthem. It’s a very tricky piece to sing, though less so for a choir of this standard. Tricky, too, is the organ part and this time it’s the other Organ Scholar, Charles Warren, who does the honours and he does so with aplomb. I can only say that the present performance strikes me as exemplary in every respect.

Among the shorter works it’s good to see John Rutter receiving acknowledgment – and a dedicated performance of his winning little anthem. Roger Quilter is more of a surprise choice; indeed, his Lead us, heavenly Father was previously unknown to me. Its hymn-like construction is unpretentious but the piece works well. A tenor soloist sings the second stanza and then provides a descant to the third; Oliver Kelham is well suited to the music. Quilter’s piece doesn’t match the stature of Sir William Harris’s Faire is the heaven; frankly, it doesn’t come close. This is one of the truly great English anthems and it’s given a very fine performance here.

More modern works bookend the programme. Jonathan Dove’s Te Deum (2014) is a Merton Choirbook commission and here receives its first recording. It opens the programme in splendidly festal style. Much of the writing for both choir and organ is exuberant; this is very definitely a hymn of praise. I really sat up when I heard the great outburst at “Thou art the \King of Glory” and Dove heightens the impact of this passage by surrounding it with quieter music. There’s abundant energy in the music though the work achieves a subdued, prayerful close. If I were to be hypercritical I might have preferred Dove to include a bit more music that is quiet and reflective in the piece but that is being hypercritical; I think it’s an impressive piece which I hope will gain wide currency among choirs.

Patrick Gowers’ Ascension anthem, Viri Galilaei was written in 1988, I believe. It’s scored for two organs but here both of the Merton Organ Scholars play the organ parts on the one instrument. It’s a fantastically imaginative piece. At the start the choir and organ establish a mood of hushed tension and expectancy. The music builds in excitement and jubilation as the Ascension itself approaches. At that moment Gowers achieves a masterstroke by incorporating a verse of the majestic nineteenth century Ascension hymn, ‘See the Conqueror mounts in triumph’. The broad, noble tune is underpinned by a propulsive, dancing organ part and exuberant choral decoration. The treatment is quite superb and most imaginative. However, rather than end on this triumphant note Gowers returns to the soft mystery of the opening, implicitly reminding us that “a cloud received Him out of their sight”. Thus is the Ascension depicted as a mystery as well as a triumph. Benjamin Nicholas and his Merton musicians give a fantastic performance.

This is a very fine disc indeed. The musical performances are truly excellent, confirming that Merton College is home to one of the very best British collegiate choirs. Furthermore, the programme has been discerningly chosen. Michael Emery is the author of the excellent notes. I see that he was Organ Scholar at Merton between 1978 and 1981; I bet he casts an envious glance at the splendid new Dobson organ. Delphian have now made several recordings in the Merton College Chapel – and not just of this choir. It seems to me that Paul Baxter likes the acoustic there very much; he certainly gets excellent results from it. On this disc the choir is expertly recorded and the organ is allowed to register in all its glory yet never does it swamp the singers.

John Quinn

 

 




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