Benjamin Nicholas - Conductor
Elgar's The Apostles

IT SEEMS extraordinary that Elgar’s oratorio The Apostles, after initial success, should have languished almost unperformed until it received belated due recognition in the late 1960s.
Part of a planned trilogy, embracing The Kingdom, though the composer regrettably abandoned its culmination, The Day of Judgment,its qualities are unquestionable. Inspired by Elgar’s visit to Wagner’s Parsifal,it embraces some dozen recurring Leitmotifs: the “Gospel motif”, most importantly “The Spirit of the Lord”, or the “Forgiveness” motif relating to Mary Magdalene. But you can hear the spirit, the harmonies, and the chromatic subtlety of Wagner’s religious last opera throughout, just as they surface in the prelude to Gerontius.
This gala performance at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford by the choir of Merton College, Oxford, to celebrate its tenth anniversary, could scarcely have been bettered. Directed by Ben Nicholas, who has transformed this ensemble into a match for any Oxford or Cambridge choir, Elgar’s The Apostles focuses on two prime characters: Mary Magdalene and latterly, Judas Iscariot, of whom the former was especially movingly sung by the mezzo soprano Virginie Verrez.
The success of this performance rested with wise conducting. Nicholas’s research into the score and phenomenal insight into it produced a magnificently eloquent and intelligent reading that was indeed a personal triumph. Perhaps outstanding, above all, was his pacing of the work. Often boldly drawn out, it included the magical ends of some movements — the way Elgar orchestrally snuffs out Judas is quite unnerving and unforgiving — plus scrupulously managed shifts of speed, vivid accelerandi, and the flair of the faster sections, all responded to by a well-drilled chorus, who put not a foot wrong.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was on scintillating form, with engaging solo clarinet, paired harps, thunderous trombones and tuba, haunting cor anglais, and a perfected team of French horns, plus the astonishing ritual calls of the Jewishshofar (Ram’s horn), plus all of the RPO strings (including some stylishly gloomy double basses), all enhancing the multi-coloured work with their captivating distinctive hues.
The value of this oratorio lies not least in the inspired choice of texts, on which Elgar was abetted by the Revd Edward Capel Cure, initially a curate in Worcester. Not only does the apt selection of biblical verses unfold the New Testament narrative with astonishing alacrity, but interspersed is a poetic element that one might term pastoral. Thus Mary Magdalene in her desolation can intone “I am as when they have gathered the summer fruits as the grape-gleanings of the vintage. . . Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they become withered”; and so on.
One intriguing detail is that, earlier on, Judas (Julian Empett) joins in supportively with the other disciples (Peter and John). Thus latterly we see him abandon this state of grace before our very eyes (“for the breath of our nostrils is as smoke, . . . our body shall be turned into ashes, and our spirit shall vanish in the soft air”). John, the tenor (David Butt Phillip), also provided a tender and articulate narrator.
Peter’s fearful denials were poignantly depicted by Marcus Farnsworth. Conversely when Christ declares: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,” the promise of future leadership was immensely moving. The soprano, Sophie Bevan, gave us a resplendent, proclamatory Angel Gabriel, before taking up Mary.
Jesus is given nobility, profound sympathy, and a magnificent, even terrifying authority. The bass Ashley Riches, endowed with an astoundingly rich low tessitura, brought these authoritative qualities wonderfully to the fore, not least in the section in which Christ rather grandly intones the Beatitudes. This, above all, was the performance to savour.
But the choir, celebrating its anniversary in amazingly fine style, deserves the last word. These mostly young singers, above all the sopranos and altos, were inspired throughout. They brought passion, fervour and many different hues to their crucial chorus contributions.
Their opening passage, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”, their glorious outburst at “They shall be named the Priests of the Lord”, and the wonderful mystic chorus that concludes, all shone gloriously. It is clear why Merton under Nicholas has so quickly entered the big league. Tuneful, delicate, articulate, and attentive, their passionate performance of this mighty oratorio could in no way have been bettered.

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