Wednesday 28 November 2012

Merton College Choir - Choral at Cadogan

In its present incarnation, the choir of Merton College, Oxford has existed since 2008 when Benjamin Nicholas and Peter Phillips became the Reed Rubin Directors of Music. Consisting of undergraduates and post-graduates, many holding choral scholarships at Merton College, the choir has rapidly developed a fine reputation. 2014 will see the college's 750th anniversary celebrations and as a built up to this, the college has started commissioning music for the choir, starting with the Seven Magnificat Antiphons for the Merton Choirbook, which were premiered earlier this year. The choir brought these along with a programme of other Advent Music to Cadogan Hall on Tuesday 27 November.

The first half, directed by Peter Phillips, opened with Thomas Weelkes' Hosanna to the Son of David. There were 36 singers on stage - 12 sopranos, 8 altos (including 1 counter-tenor), 6 tenors and 10 basses; most looked alarmingly young; certainly they looked as if they need a little help with visual styling.. In the Weelkes, with its rather dense polyphony, they made a good strong sound with nicely pointed words.

There followed a group of three double-choir motets by Victoria,  Ave Maria, Alma Redemptoris Mater and Salve Regina. In all three the choir made a lovely clear sound, shaping the melodic lines intelligently. There were hints of nerves in that one or two entries were not entirely clean, but overall these were beautifully crafted performances. To my ears though, the choir seemed to sound a little too cool and too English. The performances did build up power at the climaxes, but they lacked the vivid intensity of some modern performances of Victoria. However that is not to deny the superb skill shown by the singers.

In Britten's early Hymn to the Virgin, the choir's sound world came into its own and they sounded ideal, producing a near perfect performance with clear words allied to a shapely line and a finely blended solo group of voices in the semi-chorus.

Francis Poulenc's short, but intensely charged Salve Regina, received a performance which convincingly moved in Poulenc's very French influenced sound-world. Poulenc's choral music is never the easiest to sing and the choir placed his distinctive chord progressions perfectly.

In the brilliant opening section of Arvo Part's Bogorodiste Djevo (setting the Russian Orthodox version of the Ave Maria) the choir were on fine form, displaying a dazzling grasp of notes and words. The contrasting chanted passages were well shaped. Overall this was quite a little showpiece, with the singers displaying a lovely firm tone quality throughout.

Finally the first half concluded with another setting of Hosanna to the Son of David, this time Orlando Gibbons' altogether more energetic version, which the choir sang with a beautifully smooth line and nicely pointed words.

For the second half, the choir were conducted by Benjamin Nicholas. Here four motets by Anton Bruckner framed the Seven Magnificat Antiphons.

Blend, clarity and fine phrasing were the feature of their performance of Bruckner's Locus Iste. The choir did not give it the massive depth of tone that some groups do, instead performing with a marvellous lightness. Tuning problems disturbed the opening of Ave Maria, but soon corrected and the female voices sang with a lovely clearness. The climax was surprisingly powerful, and along the way we had some wonderfully clear high soprano singing.

The Seven Magnificat Antiphons were commissioned from seven different composers, each one working in a roughly tonal idiom. The texts for the antiphons are relatively short and often composers choose to set them as a set. Though all seven of the Merton pieces were finely crafted and each distinctive in its own right, not every composer convinced that they had written a free standing piece, rather than a chip off something greater.

Howard Skempton's O Sapientia was mainly homophonic and chorale-like. It was rather unassuming, but with a touching poignancy and piquancy to the harmonies. John Tavener's O Adonai used a long angular melody which was first introduced by the sopranos, repeated over drones with increasing complexity. The piece did not reach a resolution and though highly effective, frankly it sounded like a mere sketch for something bigger.

O Radix Jesse from Latvian composer Rihards Dubra, opened with lovely polyphony over drones, a profoundly satisfying sound evoking chant. As it developed, Dubra actually brought in a big tune, and very lovely it was too. The ending was not quite fully resolved and beautifully haunting.

Gabriel Jackson's O Clavis David again invoked chant, this time in a Celtic inflected tune which was akin to James MacMillan. Overall his setting was bright and brilliantly ecstatic, but with darker passages reflecting the text. Cecilia MacDowell's O Oriens seemed to simply revel in the gorgeous luxuriance of exotic chords, almost for their own sake.  MacDowell's transparent but complex textures were finely rendered by the choir, there was however a slight wobble in tuning at the start of the closing section after the work's brilliant climax.

Matthew Martin's O Rex Gentium, started in a big, bright, bold way, rather looking to the past for its inspiration. With the quieter passages it was clear that here too chant was never far away and there were some lovely chant inspired moments.

Finally O Emmanuel from another Latvian composer, Eriks Esenvalds. This started with a lovely solo for counter-tenor over humming chorus before the tune was taken up by the sopranos over dense, shimmering chords from the choir. Quite magical.

Apart from a couple of wobbles, the choir's performances of these works was very fine indeed. They moved smoothly between the different composers' styles, and rendered each as a perfect gem.

To conclude we had two more Bruckner motes, Christus factus est and Os Justi. Christus factus est started lightly, again eschewing a more massive sound, but the singers capitalised on this by giving the music shape. Bruckner's tricky modulations did not come through entirely unscathed, but the climax brought a strong combination of power and focus. Finally Os Justi was sung with lovely tone, superbly blended voices and the singers brought a great richness to the climaxes.

In the choir, Phillips and Nicholas have created a very fine choral instrument in remarkably short a time. The group sings services regularly at Merton College. And it is heartening to see that the college is investing not only in these fine young singers, but in developing a contemporary repertoire for them. The choir has already recorded the Magnificat Antiphons on their Advent at Merton disc for Delphian.

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