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O Holy Night - A Merton Christmas
Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Benjamin Nicholas
rec. 2016, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford DDD
Texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34192 [68:19]

I think I’ve heard all of the excellent series of discs that the Merton College Choir has made for Delphian. In terms of repertoire, this is probably the most ‘popular’ they’ve made to date but I have no problem with that. For one thing, this programme may well bring this first class choir to the attention of people who might not have sampled their previous discs. Furthermore, it’s always good to hear familiar music performed to the very highest standard. And, in any case, if you can’t indulge in a bit of familiar repertoire at Christmas, when can you?

Many of the offerings here are tried and trusted Christmas pieces. It’s often said that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without John Rutter – and we’ll come to him in a minute – but for many people Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Sir David Willcocks. Not long ago I was chatting to one of the country’s leading choral conductors and the subject of Christmas music came up. We were of one accord: the Willcocks descants are still the best. Happily, it seems that Benjamin Nicholas holds a similar view and four of Sir David’s arrangements crop up here, all of them welcome. His arrangements of Hark! the herald angels sing and O come, all ye faithful are both prefaced by majestic fanfares for brass and organ – the Merton College organ sounding splendid. I think these introductions were written by Willcocks too. In view of the imposing arrangements I was mildly surprised that these carols weren’t used respectively to open and close the programme but whoever has devised the order in which the music is presented on this CD is a bit more subtle than that, as we shall see. Incidentally, one thing I learned from Alexandra Coghlan’s very interesting notes is that Willcocks wrote the celebrated descant to O come, all ye faithful – a descant that has since gone around the world – during an evening train journey back from London to Cambridge after taking a Bach Choir rehearsal.

Other welcome old favourites include Harold Darke’s treasurable In the bleak mid-winter - a setting which I much prefer to Holst’s – and Pearsall’s In dulci jubilo. The Merton choir sings Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the apple tree with becoming purity while the innocence of Patrick Hadley’s I sing of a maiden is completely disarming in this performance.

Inevitably, John Rutter features – to be honest it would be perverse for such a collection not to include his music. His arrangement of O holy night smacks a bit too much of the chocolate box for me but I find his arrangement of Silent night very appealing. There are also two original Rutter compositions. Shepherd’s Pipe Carol dates from as long ago as 1963 when he was a Cambridge undergraduate. It’s a joyful, attractive piece – small wonder that it’s such a favourite – and this Merton performance is full of vitality. It’s preceded by a piece from the other end of Rutter’s carer to date. All bells in paradise was written nearly half a century later, for the 2012 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College. It’s blessed with a quintessentially easy and flowing Rutter melody but that tune cloaks a rather pensive text. I’ve liked this piece ever since I first hear it though so far as I can remember when I’ve previously encountered it the accompaniment has been with organ and not, as here, in a nice orchestral version. The carol, very nicely performed, fulfils its function by hooking the listener right at the start of the programme.

Like Rutter, Bob Chilcott is a Cambridge man – I’m sorry to refer so much to the Other Place when discussing an Oxford recording. He had two spells in the choir of King’s College choir and I remember him telling me when I interviewed him a few years ago what an indelible impression those experiences made on him and his music. One of the two pieces recorded here was written for King’s in 2000; that’s The Shepherd’s Carol, which I still think is one of his best Christmas pieces. The music is simple, though sophisticated, and the piece has great atmosphere. Here it receives a beautifully poised performance. There’s also a brand new Chilcott piece on the Merton programme. The Bird of Dawning is one of the pieces commissioned for the College’s wonderfully ambitious undertaking, the Merton Choirbook. The list of composers who have contributed pieces to this enterprise reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary choral music. Chilcott’s new piece is unusual for a Christmas work in that it is a setting of lines from Act 1, Scene 1 of Hamlet. It’s a lovely piece for a cappella choir, through which, like a vein, runs a soprano solo (the pure-toned Clare Webb). I presume that the solo part is a direct response to the line “The bird of dawning singeth all night long”. Beautifully performed, this is an inspired setting. Also highly effective is Thomas Hewitt Jones’ What child is this? where the use of a minor key is a welcome surprise.

The penultimate track is O come, all ye faithful, complete with brass fanfares and Merton’s mighty organ. Conventionally, that might have brought proceedings to a suitably celebratory close but this is not a conventional carol disc: as I said earlier, whoever planned the ordering of the tracks is more thoughtful than that. So, instead of finishing with the joy of Christmas we finish with the peace of the season, as expressed in Morten Lauridsen’s rapt and timeless O magnum mysterium. This is a Christmas piece that has taken the world by storm over the last couple of decades to the extent where it’s become almost ubiquitous. When you hear an outstanding performance such as this one it’s not hard to see why.

Throughout this disc Benjamin Nicholas and his superb choir are on top form. In quite a few of the items members of the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra (formerly known as Oxford Philomusica) support them with flair. In some of the other numbers the accompanying honours are very well done by the College’s two Organ Scholars, Peter Shepherd and Alexander Little. Delphian have now got significant experience of recording in Merton College Chapel and Paul Baxter has engineered this release with his customary skill. The voices are beautifully caught while in the accompanied items either the instruments or the organ make their full effect but always in expert balance with the choir. The documentation, including Alexandra Coghlan’s very good notes, is up to the label’s usual high standards.

I’m writing this review at the beginning of November but though the celebrations are still several weeks away this excellent and highly enjoyable disc has definitely put me in a Christmas mood.

John Quinn

John Rutter All bells in paradise [4:59]
John Rutter Shepherd’s Pipe Carol [2:52]
Elizabeth Poston Jesus Christ the apple tree [3:20]
Mendelssohn, arr. David Willcocks Hark! the herald-angels sing [3:28]
Hector Berlioz The Shepherds’ Farewell [4:50]
trad, arr. David Willcocks Unto us is born a son [2:17]
Harold Darke In the bleak mid-winter [4:25]
Bob Chilcott The Shepherd’s Carol [3:32]
Patrick Hadley I sing of a maiden [2:25]
Franz Gruber, arr. John Rutter Silent night [3:20]
Adolphe Adam, arr. John Rutter O holy night [5:20]
trad English, arr. Arthur Sullivan It came upon the midnight clear [2:53]
Bob Chilcott The Bird of Dawning* [3:22]
W. J. Kirkpatrick, arr. David Willcocks Away in a manger [2:27]
trad German, arr. Robert Lucas de Pearsall In dulci jubilo [3:13]
Thomas Hewitt Jones What child is this? [4:21]
J. F. Wade, arr. David Willcocks O come, all ye faithful [4:59]
Morten Lauridsen O magnum mysterium [6:06]
* First recording



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