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
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.
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.