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