Benjamin Nicholas - Conductor
Passiontide at Merton 2013 - The Sunday Telegraph

Considered by many as the apotheosis of his style, Arvo Pärt’s Passio inhabits an austere place even by the Estonian composer’s own standards. Dating from 1982, it is so self-consciously retrogressive that it sounds much more archaic than Bach’s music of 250 years earlier, and certainly less dramatic in its telling of the passion story, drawn from St John’s Gospel.Yet that lack of expression is calculated to put a meditative focus on the Latin text – the 80-minute Passio is designed more as a religious experience than a musical one. Its performance in the “Passiontide at Merton” series in Oxford last weekend cast a strangely hypnotic spell in places, but some moments of stark beauty are not enough to make this music worth the effort.The performance was worth it, though: under the direction of Benjamin Nicholas, the Choir of Merton College and The Marian Consort (the latter joined by an ensemble of violin, oboe, cello and bassoon to carry the Evangelist’s narration) found the essential stillness of Pärt’s undulating “tintinnabulist” style. Christopher Borrett sang sonorously as Jesus, surrounded by a halo of sound from the organ (Anna Steppler), and the Merton choristers brought intensity to the work’s opening and closing utterances.
John Allison
31 March 2013