Monday, 24 December 2012

Cd review - Advent at Merton

Advent at Merton
The choir of Merton College, Oxford was established in its present form in October 2008 when Benjamin Nicholas and Peter Phillips became the Reed Rubin Directors of Music. It is made up of 30 graduate and post-graduates, many on choral scholarships, and it has quickly made a name for itself. This disc is of especial interest because it includes the first recording of the seven Advent Antiphons which were commissioned for the choir by the college and premiered in 2012. Each antiphon is written by a different composer and the disc extends this by including Advent music by a number of other contemporary British composer. All the music on the disc is Advent themed, being based on the Advent service performed at Merton College.


The disc opens with Ecce concipies by Matthew Martin, starting with a fascinating but quiet texture over which the melody line finally appears. The short motet develops and grows, then dies away as suddenly. Next comes the first of three different arrangements of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (best known in the arrangement by Michael Praetorius). The first arrangement is by David Blackwell, it uses rather traditional harmonies and sets the melody quite slowly, but very effectively.

William Byrd's Rorate coeli desuper, the first of two of Byrd's motets on the disc both the first volume of his Gradualia. The choir's sound in this, as in the rest of the disc, is forward and bright with an attractive young tone. They sing it with a fine clear tone and good line, with some nice rhythmic pointing.

James MacMillan's Advent Antiphon sets the text of the Introit for the first Sunday in Advent, with the  introit text set in unison in English for the congregation and the psalm verse and Gloria Patri in Latin for the choir. In both sections, MacMillan uses a chant-like tune over drone, with his own rather evocatively distinctive style of chant. Judith Weir's Drop down, ye heavens, from above (setting the English translation of Byrd's motet), has a similar directness. Weir also uses a chant inspired tune, harmonised with rather clear harmonies with expand at key moments.

The final item in this section is Michael Praetorius's Alvus tumescit virginis played on the organ by Anna Steppler.

Many composers have set all of the great O Antiphons, the Magnificat antiphons for the last seven days of Advent, and they make a very satisfying set. With Merton choosing to use seven different composers, I am unclear whether they plan to use the seven as a group, as recorded here, or as separate items in services. All seven composers write in a manner which is fundamentally tonal and produces music which is always consistently tonal. However you get the impression that not all have managed to turn what is a relatively short movement into something truly memorable. You feel that one or two would be more comfortable building  all seven into something bigger.

Howard Skempton's O Sapientia is simple and direct, subtle and effective without ever quite grasping the attention fully. John Tavener build's his O Adonai on a rather fascinating spiky soprano melody which opens the piece, to be repeated each time with extra lines of counterpoint, over drones. A way of concentrating the moment, by using just one repeated musical idea.

Rihards Dubra's O Radix Jesse starts from quite traditional harmonies in a flexible, free flowing piece but then Dubra develops into a memorable, big tune but which doesn't quite achieve climax at the end. Gabriel Jackson uses a chant in the arresting opening of O Clavis David which is rather similar in its inflections to those of James MacMillan. Jackson combines, chant, organum and denser harmonies into a single, rather memorable movement.

I heard the choir of Merton College perform these pieces live at Cadogan Hall (see review) but have also performed Cecilia McDowall's O Oriens myself with London Concord Singers at their recent concert, so it is O Oriens that I know best. Perhaps for this reason, I find it the one of the most satisfying of the group. McDowall uses harmony and texture to create a magical feeling of light, the morning star. The harmonies use a great deal of sharpened sevenths, to give a shimmering magic to the chords which is well captured by the choir.

Matthew Martin's O Rex Gentium is a well made piece which never quite lives up to its rather arresting opening. Finally Erik Esenvald's O Emmanuel returns to chant with a lovely alto solo sung by Jeremy Kenyon over quiet cluster chords.

A second organ solo, divides the antiphons from the closing section of the disc, this time a fantasia on Es ist ein Ros entsprungen by Anton Heller.

The second motet by William Byrd, Ecce Virgo concipiet is sung with soft grained tone with a lovely clear sound. Jan Sandstrom's arrangement of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen  is for double-choir. It takes the main tune as a gentle chorale and surrounds it by gentle chords, rather lovely and very subtle.

Victoria's glorious eight-part Ave Maria is followed by one of James McMillan's Strathclyde motets. O Radiant Dawn, a setting a translation of the antiphon, O Oriens, is a simple but profoundly effective.

Peter Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas share the conducting, with Phillips doing the early pieces and Nicholas the contemporary ones, and the choir responds superbly to both of them. There are a couple of moments when the soprano line seems to harden under pressure, but generally this is a very finely crafted disc indeed, with a fascinating mix of approachable and rather fascinating responses to Advent.

Advent at Merton

Michael Martin (born 1976) - Ecce concipies [2.10] (2)
14th c. German arr David Blackwell (born 1961) - Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming [3.26] (2)
William Byrd (1539/40 - 1623) - Rorate caeli desuper [4.13] (1)
James MacMillan (born 1959) - Advent Antiphon [5.40] (2)
Judith Weir (born 1954) - Drop down, ye heavens, from above [1.47] (2)
Michael Praetorius (1571 - 1621) - Albus tumescit virginis [1.49] (3)
Howard Skempton (born 1947) - O Sapientia [1.24] (2)
John Tavener (born 1944) - O Adonai [1.20] (2)
Rihards Dubra (born 1964) - O Radix Jesse [2.25] (2)
Gabriel Jackson (born 1962) - O Clavis David [3.36] (2)
Cecilia McDowall (born 1952) - O Oriens [4.26] (2)
Matthew Martin (born 1976) - O Rex Gentium [3.45] (2)
Eriks Esenvalds (born 1977) - O Emmanuel [2.29] (2)
Anton Heiller (1923 - 1979) - Es ist ein Ros entsprungern [3.16] (3)
William Byrd (1539/40 - 1623) - Ecce Virgo concipiet [1.35] (1)
Michael Praetorius (1571 - 1621) arr. Jan Sandstrom (born 1954) - Ave Maria [4.29] (2)
Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548 - 1611) - Ave Maria [4.17] (1)
James MacMillan (born 1959) - O Radiant Dawn [3.59] (2)
Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Anna Steppler (organ) (3)
Peter Phillips (conductor) (1)
Benjamin Nicholas (conductor) (2)
Recorded 14-16 April 2012, in Merton College Chapel, Oxford.
DELPHIAN DCD34122 1CD [56.21]

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