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Gabriel JACKSON (b 1962)
The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (2014)
Emma Tring (soprano); Guy Cutting (tenor)
Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia/Benjamin Nicholas
rec. 2018, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
Text included
DELPHIAN DCD34222 [69:01]

I have been waiting for almost exactly five years, hoping for a recording of Gabriel Jackson’s The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ ever since I attended the premiere in April 2014 to review it for Seen and Heard. Since then I’ve heard a 2015 broadcast performance by the BBC Singers and Endymion, conducted by David Hill but otherwise I’ve had no further opportunities to reacquaint myself with this extraordinary score. It’s great news, therefore, that the work has now been committed to disc. The line up of both the Merton choir and, probably, of the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia will have changed over the intervening five years and there’s a different tenor soloist – Nick Pritchard sang in the premiere – but Emma Tring returns to reprise the solo soprano role – she also sang in the BBC Singers performance - and Benjamin Nicholas is once again the conductor.

Jackson scores the Passion for soloists, SATB choir and a small instrumental ensemble. This ensemble is constituted as follows: piccolo/alto flute; bass clarinet; soprano/alto saxophone; French horn; harp; violin; viola; cello; double bass; percussion (1 player who, at varying times, is called upon to play 11 different instruments). That’s a very interesting selection of wind, string and percussion instruments from which it seems clear that Jackson’s key objective is to use the ensemble not only for dramatic effect but also to colour the textures in very precisely calculated ways.

The score falls into seven sections: ‘Palm Sunday’; ‘Anointing at Bethany’; ‘Last Supper and Footwashing’; ‘Gethsemane’; ‘Caiaphas, Peter and Pilate’; ‘Crucifixion’; and ‘The End and the Beginning’. Jackson’s libretto was drawn up by the Chaplain of Merton College, Dr Simon Jones. I think Dr Jones has fashioned a libretto of considerable liturgical discernment and literary merit and he explains the thinking behind the structure of the libretto in a booklet essay. In this libretto the Passion story is not taken from just one Gospel account, as is customary. Instead there are passages from the Gospels of all four Evangelists. Dr Jones has woven the four accounts of the Passion into a seamless whole. In addition, the libretto contains passages of reflection or commentary derived from non-scriptural sources. The choice of these texts ranges widely – and very perceptively – and several of the non-scriptural passages are the work of writers who have a specific connection with Merton College. So, in the second section the non-scriptural words are taken from The General Thanksgiving by Edward Reynolds (1599-1676), who was Warden of Merton from 1660 to 1661. Later, in section four, lines are incorporated from The Evil Hour and from Intimations of Mortality by the poet, Edmund Blunden (1896-1974), who was a one-time Fellow of Merton (1931-1944). Section five incorporates verses from the versified Psalm 137 by Thomas Carew (1595-1640), who matriculated at Merton in 1608. Finally, the whole of section seven comprises a setting of lines from Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965); Eliot was a Graduate student at Merton between 1914 and 1915. I thought at the time of the premiere that this libretto works extremely well and on renewing my acquaintance with the work now I’m even more convinced of that.

The ‘Palm Sunday’ section opens with ominous, very quiet bass drum rolls; the atmosphere is, therefore, immediately pregnant with tension. The soprano saxophone bursts into a loud, wailing solo. The deliberately strident sound of the instrument and the nature of Jackson’s writing for it is powerfully primitive. Undoubtedly, the sound evokes that of ancient wind instruments but I wonder if there’s an added dimension: does the piercing, somewhat malevolent timbre of the instrument suggest to us that among the crowds who welcomed Christ into Jerusalem were some – many? – who wished him ill? Against a jerky processional, first played by the woodwinds and later taken up by the strings, the choir declaims fervently the old hymn Vexilla regis. The Gospel narration is sung by the tenor soloist. All of this powerfully evokes the febrile atmosphere of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

The second section ‘Anointing at Bethany’ could scarcely offer a greater contrast. Here, the choir sings the narration in simple homophonic style. It’s the soprano solo – and the accompaniment – that really grab the listener’s attention, though. The soprano sings the words of The General Thanksgiving against a magically delicate accompaniment, principally provided by harp and violin. The music is simply ravishing and Emma Tring’s singing is superb. Towards the end, the music becomes ecstatic. This is a truly wonderful section of the work and very moving.

We move forward to the episode of the ‘Last Supper and Footwashing’. Again, it’s the choir that provides the narration while the two soloists interject verses from very relevant ancient devotional texts – Ave verum corpus from the tenor; Ubi caritas from the soprano. There’s significant inner tension in the music throughout but as the scene unfolds and it becomes evident that Judas will betray Jesus, that tension becomes palpable.

The ‘Gethsemane’ section is, as you’d expect, very intense. A good deal of the intensity comes from Jackson’s highly imaginative instrumental scoring. Frequently, the harp, playing in its bass register, is called upon to deliver a pedal glissando. The sound produced is weird and deliberately nasty; the effect is full of suspense and menace. Equally inspired is the use of a water gong, the sound of which I can only describe as spooky. The narration is given to the choir but the prime focus of attention is the tenor soloist. To him are given settings of two poems by Edmund Blunden, firstly The Evil Hour and then Intimations of Mortality. These are inspired choices. The vocal line in the first poem is plaintive and anguished, the feeling intensified by the jagged nature of the instrumental writing. The vocal line in Intimations of Mortality is rather more lyrical but still very troubled. Guy Cutting sings all this intense music with terrific commitment and emotional engagement. I find it amazing just how much Gabriel Jackson can get out of a fairly small instrumental ensemble: this is really resourceful writing. The movement is riveting.

The story moves forward to the episode entitled ‘Caiaphas, Peter and Pilate’. Here, roles are reversed and it is the soloists, usually singing in duet, who deliver the narration while the choir sings Thomas Carew’s versified Psalm 137. Again, the choice of the non-Gospel text is highly apposite. The choir’s music is homophonic and relatively warm in tone while much of the narration is urgent and fast-paced. Some members of the choir sing small solo roles, the most substantial of which is the role of Pilate.

At the start of ‘Crucifixion’ Jackson reprises the soprano saxophone material heard at the very start of the work. This surely confirms that those who wished Christ ill on Palm Sunday have prevailed. The music is deliberately – and appropriately – stark; the narration is back with the choir and their music is very spare. The soprano soloist contributes some verses from the sixth-century hymn, Crux fidelis; the soloist’s music is heartfelt and Emma Tring sings it eloquently. In this section Jackson writes with notable economy of means and the results are very powerful and intense.

How to end such a Passion setting? Gabriel Jackson and Simon Jones have come up with an inspired solution. There is no Gospel narrative; instead the final section, ‘The End and the Beginning’ consists of a setting of T S Eliot’s Little Gidding. This isn’t an explicitly religious poem but, in this context, it serves its purpose admirably. The choir begins and at once one notices that the tone has changed: the music is warmer and much more lyrical compared with what we’ve heard previously. The instrumental writing is warmer too. When the soloists enter, singing in unison, at ‘With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling’ the music has built a powerful emotional momentum and their phrase is simply rapturous. When the choir sings the famous words - quoted by Eliot from Julian of Norwich - ‘And all shall be well/And all manner of thing shall be well’ Jackson makes the phrase into a key moment, the tonality exceptionally warm. The setting – and the Passion as a whole – reaches an ecstatic climax on Eliot’s concluding line, ‘And the fire and the rose are one’, after which the music falls back and achieves a very subdued conclusion. Thus, we come away from this Passion work thoughtfully but with a sense of great hope. By their choice of this poem Jones and Jackson have ensured that this is a message of hope and redemption that can be taken away and pondered in many ways – and not just by Christian believers.

The last section of The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ provides a very fitting end to an extremely moving and profound work. It’s always difficult – and sometimes dangerous – to reach a conclusion about a piece of music at a first hearing but I felt the first time I encountered this work that I had experienced something rather special. The joy of a recording is that one can take a more considered view and I’m delighted to find that the initial judgements I formed about The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ at its premiere have not just been confirmed but reinforced. This is a very fine synthesis of words and music, knitted together into a work of art that offers at one and the same time a compelling, dramatic narrative and a deeply thoughtful series of reflections on the narrative. I’m now completely convinced that this is a score of great importance.

The work’s cause is helped greatly by the quality of this performance. The two soloists excel; Emma Tring in particular seems to have the words and music deeply within her. I believe I’m right in saying that Gabriel Jackson had her voice specifically in mind when he wrote the part: that’s how it sounds, the music fitting her voice like a musical glove. She has made the part her own. Guy Cutting is also very impressive. His voice is ideal for the music, not least on account of his great clarity of tone and diction, and he communicates vividly with the listener. I’ve long admired the Merton College choir and they sing superbly on this recording. Their commitment to the music is evident and they deliver the music with great assurance. The playing of the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia is incisive and expert: the instrumental writing presents many challenges but all are surmounted. Benjamin Nicholas has clearly prepared the performance scrupulously. I was able to follow the performance using a full score and I noted that the attention to detail was scrupulous throughout. Furthermore, Nicholas gives every indication of complete belief in the work.

The production values are high, as is always the case with Delphian. The recorded sound is first class. Paul Baxter has become very experienced in recording music in the Merton College chapel and it shows. He has engineered a recording of great clarity in which all the elements – soloists, choir and ensemble – are ideally balanced and the acoustic of the chapel imparts an ideal ambience. As for the booklet, it includes the sung text and it’s also graced by two essays of considerable distinction. Dr Simon Jones writes about his libretto while Michael Emery, a former Organ Scholar of Merton, provides an excellent overall introduction to the work.

When I reviewed the first performance of The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, I concluded my appraisal thus: “I was thrilled and moved by this score and the performance which it received. The standing ovation indicated that I was far from alone in this response. Jackson’s score is important and eloquent and I am impatient to hear it again. I hope very much that Delphian, the label that records the Merton College Choir, will be able to find a way to bring about a recording soon for this work deserves to be widely heard.” I completely stand by that verdict, though I wish now that I’d included in it praise not just for Gabriel Jackson’s music but also for Simon Jones’ libretto; both are masterly. We’ve had to wait five years for a recording but that’s understandable; such projects take time – and funding, I suppose. All I can say is that it’s been well worth the wait to hear this exceptional contemporary Passion setting so marvellously recorded.

John Quinn

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