Advent at Merton/Delphian
The most notable chapel choir offering is Advent at Merton. All the music is radiant, all of it is unexpected, including a set of seven Advent antiphons commissioned by the Chaplain from composers currently renowned for their choral music. It is less of a textbook collection of Christmas music than many others out this year, and comes from a choir that’s gone from being a minor player in Oxbridge choral music to becoming one of the most exciting groups in its area.
In the beginning/Delphian
Gramophone Critic's Choice
The Choir of Merton College, Oxford, was founded in 2008 and this debut CD will undoubtedly establish them as one of the UK’s finest choral ensembles. Listening to their superb performances and seamless blending of voices, it’s hard to believe that the choir is only four years old. They have a vast range of dynamics and vocal colouring, and they’re fully responsive to the different styles of the 16th- and 17th-century polyphonic compositions and the rich chordal textures of the 20th- and 21st-century pieces. I’m sure this is the happy outcome of having joint directors of music, and the skill and experience of both Peter Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas bring out the best from their singers.The imaginative programme explores beginnings, as heard in the famous opening words of the Book of Genesis and St John’s Gospel, and endings, represented by the words of the Nunc dimittis plus the story of the murder of King David’s son Absalom. Despite the gap of three centuries, the compositions of Gombert, Palestrina and Weelkes sit comfortably with the modern works, and the serene polyphony of the early music repertoire is every bit as expressive as the sumptous harmonies of the pieces by Holst, Łukaszewski and Whitacre. Merton College deserve our gratitude for commissioning Gabriel Jackson’s In the beginning, a marvellous setting of familiar words, much enhanced by the descriptive accompaniment of organist Natasha Tyrwhitt-Drake. Beth Mackay is an excellent soloist in Copland’s mini-oratorio and her bold, declamatory singing is ideally suited to the words from Genesis. An intensely moving recording, strongly recommended.
Throughout, the trebles of Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum give excellent performances of impressive consistency ..... They have an uninhibited, fresh sound coupled with the skill to sustain lengthy phrases with even tone.
Weelkes: Sacred Choral Music/Delphian
Gramophone Recommended Recording
O vos omnes: in this instance, all you that customarily pass by without reading reviews of Tudor church music, thinking it (perhaps) skilful and lovely no doubt, but somewhat cool and impersonal. Weelkes is a composer to make you think again, and Tewkesbury Abbey currently has the choir to present him in strongest colours and with the most personal accent. Born around 1575, he was of the last generation of Elizabethans and wrote much of his church music in Jacobean times, so having a great musical inheritance to draw upon. And he did indeed pay what looks like conscious tribute in his music to such eminent predecessors as Byrd and Gibbons. There remains an intensity of passionate utterance in the most striking of his works, balanced by a sober moderation in much else. He himself, as we learn from contemporary accounts, was not characterised by either moderation or sobriety, at least in his latter years, coming to his choir "from the Taverne or Ale house" cursing and swearing "most dreadfully". You would never guess as much from the decorous verse anthems and evening canticles, but the intensity of the lament O Jonathan, which opens the present recital, might suggest a less bridled temperament, as might the concentrated fervour of Hosanna to the Son of David, which closes it. Under Benjamin Nicholas, director of the Abbey's Schola Cantorum, the choir has developed a strong style, remarkable for its sense of personal (or corporate) commitment as for the sonority of its tone and the assurance of its delivery. The trebles splendidly vindicate the tradition that places them at the heart of the English cathedral music. the men's voices are also powerful and resonant and the total effect is rich and forthright. If anything, the "standard" level of volume is set too high - it is not until the sixth item, O how amiable are thy dwellings, that we find reassurance that the choir can sing quietly. Fine solo work and neat organ-playing are further assets, as is the introductory note by Dr Peter James. He points out, incidentally, that O vos omnes and the Third Service are reconstructed from surviving parts, newly edited and recorded here for the first time.
A fine tribute to the Abbey School: an evensong tinged with melancholy.
Though this CD provides a moving liturgical representation of a traditional Anglican evensong, its valedictory nature colours the performances with an inescapably melancholy tinge, one reinforced, at least to me, by the doleful strains of Howells’s Master Tallis’s Testament as the opening voluntary and Tallis’s Sancte Deus which follows as the introit. It was with some sadness that the Abbey School at Tewkesbury (the vision of its founder, Miles Amherst) closed in 2006 after 33 years of productive artistic existence. This recording therefore stands as a fitting memorial to the institution’s admirable achievements, measured not only by the regular services but by foreign tours, concerts and commissioned works. One such commission, sung here with ardour, is Gabriel Jackson’s highly evocative Magnificant and Nunc Dimittis, a work that clearly alludes to the numinous textures and rich harmonic “sound moments” of Howells. The Gloucestershire association of Howells, who is also represented chorally by his magisterial Te Deum from his Collegium Regale, is further emphasised by the inclusion of Vaughan Williams’s Valiant-for-Truth. Sung with real passion and conviction, this is, for me, the highlight of the disc. From time to time the organ pedal is apt to boom, which is occasionally an uncomfortable distraction, but this does not detract from the splendid and generally well-balanced sound of the choir and the carefully chosen programme.