Benjamin Nicholas - Conductor
Passiontide at Merton 2013

For decades, sacred choral music at Oxford was dominated by three choirs: those of Christ Church cathedral, Magdalen and New College, each effectively with its own choir school.   True, there were others – St. John’s all-male choir drew its boys from city schools; Exeter, Keble, Lincoln, and several of the girls’ colleges flourished with choirs run by their respective undergraduate organ scholars.   But the big three, overseen by charismatic choirmasters of exceptional gifts, such as Bernard Rose, Simon Preston, and Edward Higginbottom, ruled the roost.   Until now. As the recent ‘Passiontide at Merton’ festival demonstrated, Oxford now has a fourth college, with girls on the top (treble and mien) lines, that is easily a match for the top trio. In the Michaelmas Term 2008, Peter Phillips launched the new Merton College Choir, like Trinity and Clare in Cambridge richly endowed with choral scholarships. In less than five years Phillips established it a musical force of astonishing quality and character.   Its young singers are sophisticated, repertoire-familiar, energised and empathetic to music of all periods. To hear an evensong there is to be transported. Musically speaking, Merton has arrived.       

The current co-director of music, who devised and conducted the Festival’s main events, is Benjamin Nicholas, son of the former organist of Norwich Cathedral and a vitalising former Oxford organ scholar, who more recently transformed, and saved, the fabulous boys’ choir of Tewkesbury Abbey.   Inspiring yet unostentatious, Nicholas, with his vocal charges Carys Lane and Giles Underwood (himself a formidable Cambridge ex-choral scholar), has trained his Merton (mostly) undergraduates to an astonishing degree of accuracy and flair: their vowels are of almost unique quality for such an ensemble; their delivery is exciting, sensitive, commanding, fluent; they are, and sound, meticulously rehearsed.   You could hear all this in the new Evening Canticles specially commissioned for the choir’s 750 anniversary Merton Choirbook from Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds (b.1977). The setting is relatively straightforward, but its reliance on shifting dynamics produced some unusual fireworks. Merton’s magnificent countertenors get the star roles – at ‘He hath shewed strength with his arm’, a passage more usually associated with bass voices; and in the glorious, melisma-tinged countertenor solo cantilevering out of the textures of the Gloria.   Esenvalds’ new Nunc Dimittis is less clustering (apart from ‘Which Thou has prepared’), more tonal, but rhapsodic; and here the rising tenors (‘To be a light…’) took the honours. But it was Matthew Martin’s Responses and a sensational rendering of Psalm 130 (‘Out of the deep’) that frankly deserved the limelight. The chant’s composer (here Purcell, adapted Turle) should surely be identified in any song sheet.   The main item (a polished Handel’s Messiah apart) was Estonian Arvo Pärt’s St. John Passion. Here was the most compelling performance I have heard of this plaintive, patient, sombre work, a match even for the Hilliard Ensemble’s famous recording. The young countertenor who has the lion’s share of an excellent solo quartet possessed a beauty out of this world. The choir’s recurrent interjections were all spot on. And if Christopher Borrett, the bass singing Jesus – his placing in the antechapel (in the organ lift) was acoustically imaginitive – seemed sometimes just off note and less than dramatic (admittedly that is part of Pärt’s point), his opposite number, Timothy Coleman, the tenor Pilate, rang through with all the benefits of the building’s expressive acoustic.   Beforehand Meurig Bowen, the brains behind the annual Cheltenham Festival, delivered an engaging, informative talk on Pärt, the musical examples ingeniously illustrating the composer’s pilgrimage from Soviet-era modernist via the plaintive elegy Für Alina to his current bell-like (‘tintinnabular’) vocabulary and manner.   All this was preceded by a sequence of English composers for voice and piano. What impressed was not so much Britten’s Canticle Abraham and Isaac, enchantingly sung (the unison touches not least impressive) by alto Jeremy Kenyon and tenor Thomas Elwin (an ex-head chorister of St. Paul’s Cathedral), or even four exquisitely accompanied Britten folk songs, but rather some Purcell solo songs realised by Britten (‘Evening Hymn’, culminating in a touching ‘Alleluia’), if not always beneficially. The music at ‘drop, drop, drop’ (‘Music for awhile’) evidences Purcell’s sensational response to the words he sets; in the same class as Gibbons, and Walton.  

Three Kings/Delphian

I doubt whether there are many more admirable choirs outside Westminster, Oxford and Cambridge than the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum. On Tewkesbury’s new Christmas disc, The Three Kings, Nicholas’s choir give proof yet again of the qualities that place them firmly in the front rank: flair, acumen, versatility and poise.
December 2007