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Passiontide music in Oxford

by
17 April 2015

Roderic Dunnett hears new works in Merton College Chapel

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MERTON COLLEGE, Oxford, traces its foundation back to 1264. To honour its 750th anniversary last year, it celebrated with style and imagination. It has installed a superlative Dobson organ, dedicated by the Bishop of Oxford and given its inaugural recital by John Scott, formerly of St Paul's Cathedral and now organist of St Thomas's, Fifth Avenue, in New York.

Last year also brought the unveiling of an antechapel statue, Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, by Coventry-born Peter Eugene Ball: a superlative painted sculpture, the beauty of whose colourings - red, blue, brown, gold - have a Byzantine splendour akin to the mosaics of 12th-century Sicily. The Christ-child sits confidently in his mother's lap, one reassuring hand securing him safely, and yet seeming not vulnerable, but raring to instruct and learn from the elders in the Temple.

Preceding that significant anniversary, Merton's Reed Rubin Director of Music, Benjamin Nicholas, established a Passiontide festival, spanning three days and as committed to exploring new music as mastering the Renaissance or Baroque. Thus the opening concert this year included three works by Arvo Pärt, one by Andrzej Panufnik (whose centenary fell in 2014), and two commissioned from the young composers Hilary Campbell and Emily Levy by the Marian Concert, who also played a central part in this year's festival launch.

First came Palestrina: his Stabat Mater (to balance Pärt's setting at the end of the programme) is a largely homophonic late work of staggering beauty achieved through simplicity (there are no repeats). Nicholas and his Merton choir prised out its different nuances: the unexpected dance of the opening; the beautiful enunciation of text; the contrasted blocks of voices (as at "Quis non posset"); the skittishness of "Eja Mater, fons amoris"; perfect, refined consonants at "Virgo virginum praeclara"; and the unnervingly exquisite way Palestrina floats in the final "Paradisi gloria".

Before In Paradisum, a wondrously conceived three-part structure by Emily Levy, which was the revelation of the evening, came Ave Maria, commissioned from Hilary Campbell and performed by a striking young vocal sextet, The Marian Consort.

Both works rely, as is today's predilection, on clusterings (thickish chordings of tangible beauty whose harmonic implications are not always obvious: Campbell's anthem hinges on some quite unusual chordings ("benedicta tu in mulieribus"), some memorable pairings or duetting in the upper voices, then virtual close harmony in the middle voices.

There is a glorious burst of light midway, at "Sancta Maria, Mater Dei". Interestingly here, the clustering chords do often suggest a tendency to resolve; the final Amen is uplifting. Sung with such purity of diction, the work is a polished gem.

Levy's anthem is a more extended, richly inventive setting of the Lux Aeterna and In Paradisum of the requiem mass, enfolding a setting of two lines from Broken Vessels (1991) by the American storywriter Andre Dubus II (1936-99). Part of the impact of Levy's work is the forces deployed: vocal consort, larger choir, and unison children's choir, who also contribute, poignantly, to the superb swell and build-up near the close.

The opening consists of gentle hissing or susurrations, not sinister but alluring, like shingle on a shore, then wind in the leaves; mysterious slidings and subtly intruded trillings prolong the atmosphere, all the forces beautifully stylised, thanks to Benjamin Nicholas's acute conducting.

The scintillating outburst at "lux perpetua", led in by alto then soprano, was a high point for the excellent tenors; while near the close, "Quia pius es", with the words lightly broken up, perhaps owed something, appropriately, to the pure techniques of Pärt.

The children's section, "We receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude…", was sung to perfection, thanks to perfect tuning and tender responses from the full choir.

The In Paradisum is intentionally simpler than the first part, but not without invention: altos shining through the textures; the plaintive setting of "civitatem sanctam Jerusalem"; an appealing element of dance; and the superb enunciation of all culminating climactically at "Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat." Levy's work is packed with originality and imagination. It was worth hearing this memorable Merton concert for this alone.

Panufnik's Song to the Virgin Mary, a setting of a Marian text popular in Poland ("Maria! Tu pulchrior. Tu stellis purior. . ."), a tender hymn of adoration, owes much to Panufnik's fondness for achieving colour by alternating and mingling minor and major; while Pärt's drawn-out Stabat Mater is one of those works in which he introduces his ticking "tintinnabular" technique, achieving much here by pairing two strings, or a single voice and strings.

But the fine string players, the Carducci Quartet, also produced two of the most hauntingly mesmerising pieces of the evening, in Pärt's instrumental works Fratres and Summa. Slotted between the choral works, and mirroring one another, they provided a perfect contrast to what proved a riveting and satisfying programme.

The Choir of Merton College, Oxford and the Marian Consort are both recorded on Delphian Records, www.delphianrecords.co.uk.

 

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