An inventive Passion sung immaculately

by
02 May 2014

By Roderic Dunnett

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BENJAMIN NICHOLAS, who has just overseen the Passiontide Festival at Merton College, Oxford, grew up with music, writes Roderic Dunnett.

His father was organist of St Matthew's, Northampton, and latterly Norwich Cathedral, and later Chief Executive of the Royal College of Organists. As a boy, Nicholas was pupil and friend of organ scholars and assistants, before serving an undergraduate organist at Lincoln College, Oxford, where the quality of his choir training secured the choir a coveted place with Guild Records.

As Director of Music at Tewkesbury Abbey, he produced a musical excellence among his boys which landed them among the top half-dozen boys' choirs in England. Having overseen the transition by which the Abbey Choir School became absorbed into Dean Close, Cheltenham, he has taken over from Peter Phillips at Merton College.

This year, Merton celebrates its 750th anniversary. A splendid new Dobson organ, as apt for choir accompaniment as for recitals, has been installed in the chapel; the annual Passiontide Festival has flourished; and a new sacred-music collection, the Merton Choirbook, is evolving into a masterpiece of newly commissioned church music.

It includes works by Harrison Birtwistle, Julian Anderson, James MacMillan, Jonathan Dove, and others, including most recently, David Briggs's Messe Solennelle, as part of a Merton organ festival. The most substantial contribution so far, The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ by Gabriel Jackson, was unveiled last month.

The Passion followed a rewarding recital on the new organ by William Whitehead, which placed Bach-related chorale preludes alongside beautifully articulated precedents by Bach himself, part of Whitehead's scheme to "complete" Bach's Orgelbüchlein.

But it is the mixed-voice Merton choir that is the miraculous force driving this Festival. That Nicholas can produce from male and female undergraduates (mostly) a sound that matches, perhaps even betters, his Tewkesbury boys and men, and which can sing Jackson's exquisitely crafted, fluid text-setting with such gratifying results, is a measure of what has been achieved in a handful of terms, just three or four years.

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The text, amassed by the Chaplain at Merton, the Revd Dr Simon Jones, makes all the difference. But Jackson, a composer immersed in sacred settings, is a master word-setter, whose music may veer here towards Tavener or 

Arvo Pärt, but is never derivative. Like MacMillan, Jackson is his own master. His use of a ten-part instrumental ensemble is full of nuggets, from the pianissimoopening drum and shawm-like use of saxophone to the deployment of a low-register string quartet (with double bass), an insistent and then serene use of woodwind and horn, or the pairing of harp and violin, or the dark deployment of cello and bass at "Take, eat".

The choir, as storyteller, shone at the outset, and - with meticulous articulation and gorgeous intonation - never fell short, be it in prefacing a seraphically soaring soprano solo (Emma Tring), in Benedicite vein ("We praise theefor our creation . . ."), or narrating the end ("And it was the thirdhour. . ."), where the countertenors and mezzo-sopranos in the choir achieved a haunting beauty.

A beautifully chosen hymn "Sitting by the streames that glide", a five-stanza paraphrase of Psalm 137 by Thomas Carew (who matriculated at Merton aged 12 or 13 in 1608), yielded an astonishing piccolo filigree in the fourth verse, and a sensationally beautiful choir fade at the close.

One section that really stood out was the two upper voices enunciating the events of the Last Supper, the lower voices interjecting Christ's injunction ("Drink ye all of it"), and then continuing the story ("the devil put into the heart of Judas Iscariot . . .") while a tenor solo intoned lines from the Latin Stabat Mater. This is drama of the highest order, both in text and in Jackson's music. It is the tenor, too, who sings the achingly sad envoi, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"

The emphasis changes latterly, first to a dark passage ("The Evil Hour") of the First World War-imbued Edmund Blunden, infantry officer and later English tutor at Merton ("Such a surge of black wings saw I never homing. . ."), where Jackson's use of alto flute and bass clarinet, setting up a kind of nervy chatter, shows typical musical inventiveness. So intense is the treatment here that Blunden's poetry acquires the visionary intensity of Rilke.

The setting of T. S. Eliot, "What we call the beginning is often the end. . .", seemed less judicious. These famous 46 lines from Little Gidding were set more or less baldly straight through. Despite Nicholas's coaxing, it seemed an anticlimax.

I prefer to think of the ending as what preceded: an exquisite soprano intoning three stanzas of the Passion hymn by Venantius Fortunatus (who didn't, I think, matriculate at Merton) "Pange lingua". Set against the offering of the sponge, the veil of the temple, and the centurion's "Truly this man was the Son of God", it would have made a more compelling conclusion.

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