If asked to name the top mixed-voice Oxbridge chapel choirs with a reputation beyond their college walls, up until recently the majority of choral affictionados would probably have come up with two Cambridge ones - Clare College Choir, and Gonville and Caius College Choir. However, thanks to the Warden and Fellows of Merton College, Oxford, that may be about to change. In fact, if a handbook were to be written on How to Instantly Form a Crack Professional Choir, then they should be asked to write it.
Up until 2008, Merton College Choir existed in the form of most decent-but-not-extraordinary Oxbridge chapel choirs; auditioned undergraduate volunteers, directed by the undergraduate organ scholars. However, the Warden and Fellows of the college had higher aspirations. In 2008 they relaunched the choir in a considerably different format. This time, 18 newly-created choral scholarships made up the majority of the singers, supplemented by just 10 auditioned undergraduate volunteers. Responsibility for the choral directorship was removed from the undergraduate organ scholars and handed instead to the joint talents of Old Mertonian and Tallis Scholars founder Peter Phillips, and Tewkesbury Abbey's Schola Cantorum director, Benjamin Nicholas. In fact, the level of ambition underpinning this new Merton College Choir was, and indeed is, quite dizzying.
Three years on, here they are with a debut disc themed around beginnings and endings. Featuring Renaissance and modern classics from da Palestrina to ?ukaszewski, it's a beautifully chosen programme. The bookends are a motet the choir commissioned from Gabriel Jackson in 2008 (note the date) titled In the Beginning, and Aaron Copland's harmonically and rhythmically complex mini oratorio of the same name. Gems within include a pairing of Thomas Weelke's When David Heard with Eric Whitacre's emotionally charged 21st century setting of the same text.
On to the performance itself and, incredibly, the new Merton College Choir has leap-frogged its way almost to the top of the collegiate choral pile. Softer overall than the brightly-toned Caius Choir, their mellow timbre is beautifully flecked with upper-register light. Highly versatile, they're well capable of taking on a silvery-sharp edge when called for by the music. They can up the emotional ante too - the cries of "my son" in Whitacre's When David Heard, written with the early death of its commissioning conductor's son in mind, feel so raw with suffering that you're left feeling quite emotionally wiped afterwards. For the Copland soprano solo they've enlisted the talents of professional mezzo, Beth Mackay. She sings superbly, her tone a lovely match for the choir, but one almost wonders how necessary the engagement was given the home talent. A stunning recording debut, and a choir to keep an eye and ear on.
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The new choral foundation at Merton College employs a coalition of music directors, Benjamin Nicholas and Peter Phillips. The liner notes refuse to disclose who conducts which piece, but it s reasonable to assume that Phillips, a specialist in the field, takes care of the three Renaissance works, Gombert s mesmeric eight-voice Lugebat David Absalon, Weelkes s When David Heard and a noble double-choir Nunc dimittis by Palestrina, all given shapely, texturally clean performances. The rest of the disc is post-19th-century music, including Holst s rather vigorous Nunc dimittis. Plainly, this is a fine choir, and a worthy rival to the other mixed-voice Oxbridge ensembles that have flourished in recent times. --Stephen Pettitt, Sunday Times, 18 September 2011
A stunning recording debut, and a choir to keep an eye and ear on. --bbc.co.uk