Áine Smith (soprano); Ruari Bowen (tenor); William Thomas (bass)
Girl Choristers of Merton College
Choir of Merton College, Oxford
Britten Sinfonia/Benjamin Nicholas
rec. 2022, All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, London
Delphian DCD34291 
The Choir of Merton College, Oxford has built up a substantial discography with Delphian but, in terms of forces involved, I fancy this is their biggest project to date – and quite possibly Delphian’s biggest project also. Their most recent disc of music by Howells and Venables involved a fairly modest-sized orchestra (review) but for this latest disc they have enlisted the more substantial forces of the Britten Sinfonia. Furthermore, in order to accommodate the choir and orchestra comfortably it has been necessary to relocate from the choir’s usual recording venue, the Merton College Chapel, to the much larger building – and acoustic – that is All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, although I believe that the organ contributions were recorded separately on the splendid organ of Merton College Chapel.
Benjamin Nicholas had large forces at his disposal. The Choir of Merton College comprised no fewer than 42 singers (15/8/8/11); to the best of my recollection, that’s a larger group than I’ve noted on previous discs. To their ranks were added 18 members of the Girl Choristers of Merton College. The Britten Sinfonia fielded a large ensemble too, including a good-sized body of strings (13/8/7/5/3), 11 woodwind, 4 horns, 10 brass, 2 timpani/percussion players, 2 harps and piano. Even though not all the players would have been involved in every piece, nonetheless, the Chapel at Merton College could never have accommodated such forces; no wonder everyone had to assemble in London.
Actually, the very first item on the programme offered an example of reduced orchestral forces. In view of the grandeur of much of the music, I was surprised to discover that when Bairstow made an orchestral arrangement of Blessed city, heavenly Salem he limited himself to strings and piano. The piece makes a most auspicious start to this recital because an initial opening flourish for strings paves the way for an emphatic choral declamation. The impact made by the singers is impressive enough but what I also noted was the way the sound resonated in the spacious acoustic during the rest that follows the choral outburst. That happens once or twice more during the performance. A real sense of occasion is imparted. A little later, I was very taken with the terrific attack by the tenors and basses at the start of the third stanza of the text (‘Bright thy gates of pearl are shining’). But the most memorable feature of all is the concluding stanza (‘To this temple, where we call you’). There’s a beguiling, soft warmth to the sound of the choir and the strings in the background while in the foreground the soprano soloist offers beautiful, poised singing. The soloist is Aine Smith, a member of the choir; she makes a fine impression.
Sir George Dyson composed his Evening Service in D for choir and organ in 1907, The orchestral dress in which the music is clothed on this occasion was provided by Douglas Hopkins, who made this orchestration in 1935 for the annual Festival of the Sons of the Clergy, an important annual service held in St Paul’s Cathedral. I learned from the booklet that at this time Hopkins, who later served successively as Organist of the cathedrals of Peterborough and Canterbury, was Sub-Organist of St. Paul’s. As such, he would have been very familiar with the huge acoustic – and physical space – of that building and I’ve no doubt he tailored his scoring accordingly. I understand that it was the organist and scholar, Jonathan Clinch who discovered the full score of Hopkins’ orchestral version amongst manuscripts at the Royal College of Music. Subsequently, he arranged for the Dyson Trust to have the score typeset and published; so, it’s thanks to his initiative that we can hear the music in orchestral dress on this CD. In his booklet essay, Michael Emery refers to Dyson’s Canticles as a “musical statement of muscular Christianity”. I’m not sure that description quite fits the Nunc dimittis, but it’s certainly true of the Magnificat. The Merton choirs, handsomely supported by the orchestra, give a splendidly forthright account of the Magnificat. The Nunc dimittis is rather different; for the most part the music is full of warm tranquillity, which these performers convey expertly. The tranquil mood carries over to the ‘Glory be’. Instead of reprising the grand extrovert music to which he set those words in the Magnificat, Dyson ends his ‘Nunc’ with simple, prayerful music which here provides the ideal coda to a warm, glowing rendition of the canticle.
Whereas the Dyson was expanded, through orchestration, for a big occasion, Vaughan Williams’ setting of the Te Deum was composed for a big event – the enthronement of Cosmo Lang as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1928 – but was only orchestrated after that event. The orchestration was made by VWs friend and pupil, Arnold Foster; I don’t know if Foster had any specific forthcoming occasion in mind when he scored the piece. VW’s setting of the Te Deum is concise and, for the most part, robust. It’s music that speaks very directly to the listener and here it is strongly projected by Nicholas and his choir and orchestra.
Another ‘big occasion’ piece – and one, this time, which the composer orchestrated specifically for that occasion – is Howells’ anthem Behold, O God our defender. The piece was composed for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and was designed to be performed as the Introit to the Communion Service which formed part of the liturgy. It’s quintessential Howells, not least in the ecstatic climax which is achieved at the word ‘anointed’. Howells sets two verses of Psalm 84 and in the second of these (‘For one day in thy courts…’) he writes some trademark chromatic polyphony. The orchestration is very successful too; I love the warm richness of the horn parts at several points. It was pleasing to read in the booklet that for this recording, Benjamin Nicholas was able to use a facsimile of the composer’s own handwritten full score.
This programme includes no fewer than three pieces by – or involving – Elgar, all of them from different periods in his career. Ecce sacerdos magnus is a fairly early work. He composed it in 1888 for the choir of St George’s Roman Catholic Church, Worcester (with which he and his father were closely connected) to sing on the occasion of a pastoral visit by the Archbishop of Birmingham. At that stage the choir were accompanied by an organ, but in 1893 Elgar made an orchestral version for the choir of another Catholic church, this time in Birmingham, to sing at a special service. It’s not top-drawer Elgar but the music has a simple, dignified grandeur and it’s well within the compass of a parish choir. A polished performance such as this one shows the piece in the best possible light. At the other end of Elgar’s career comes his orchestration of Purcell’s anthem Jehovah, quam multi sunt hostes mei. He made this arrangement at the behest of Sir Ivor Atkins for the 1929 Three Choirs Festival, which was held that year in Worcester. Michael Emery writes that Atkins had clearly hoped for something much more substantial when he sounded Elgar out; however, by 1929 the composer’s creative fires were burning very dimly indeed. Emery references a review of the Three Choirs premiere by The Times newspaper, which complained of Elgar’s arrangement “thickening the texture of Purcell’s limpid style”. That’s a fair comment up to a point, but in this present performance any such thickening is not so apparent. Of course, judicious microphone placing – and the skill of the musicians – will have helped, but I wonder if The Times critic was influenced by hearing a much larger choir and orchestra than are here assembled by Delphian perform the music in the very large acoustic of Worcester Cathedral. Elgar’s scoring seems to me to be tasteful and it’s nowhere near as full-throated as in his earlier Bach arrangements for orchestra. The performance benefits from an excellent lyrical tenor solo from Ruari Bowen and commanding solo singing by bass William Thomas.n
By a long distance, the pick of the Elgar items is The Spirit of the Lord. Nowadays, this is often performed as a standalone anthem (usually with organ accompaniment) but its primary role is as the Prologue to Elgar’s oratorio The Apostles. If Ecce sacerdos magnus is, as I suggested, not top-drawer Elgar, then The Spirit of the Lord and, indeed, the entire oratorio, most certainly is top-drawer. I did wonder if Benjamin Nicholas was not quite spacious enough in the orchestral music which opens and closes the piece. However, when I compared his account with Sir Adrian Boult’s classic premiere recording of the oratorio, I found that Nicholas was pretty similar in his pacing. Personally, I have a hankering for the slightly more expansive approach of Sir Mark Elder in his complete recording, but Nicholas paces the piece very intelligently; crucially, he allows the music to flow. The choir sings Elgar’s music really well; there’s suitably hushed mystery at the very start and later the majestic tune (‘For as the earth…’) is given its full value.
The Spirit of the Lord is one of two pieces which, as both work and performance, stands above the rest in this programme. The other is Gerald Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice. This wonderful anthem, a setting of lines by Richard Crashaw (c 1613-1646) after St Thomas Aquinas, was commissioned in 1946 by Rev. Walter Hussey for St Matthew’s Church, Northampton. The original version calls for organ accompaniment but we hear it in the orchestration which Finzi made in the following year when he conducted the piece at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. I think Finzi’s scoring adds extra colours to the piece and, essentially, I think it’s a successful orchestration. That said, I do find the accompaniment sometimes draws attention to itself and away from the singers in a way that the organ accompaniment doesn’t do. And while the orchestral opening is very subtle and inventive – especially as rendered by the Britten Sinfonia – there’s a certain indefinable frisson about hearing the same passage played softly and atmospherically by the organ. But that’s just a personal prejudice. As I said, I think Finzi’s orchestration is successful.
Turning to the present performance, I think it’s a winner in every sense. The orchestral contribution is excellent throughout, while the Merton singers give a marvellous account of Finzi’s often tricky music. In particular, Crashaw’s mystical imagery is complex yet the words come over very naturally in this performance. That’s thanks in no small measure to Benjamin Nicholas’s conducting. In order to set Crashaw’s lines, Finzi wrote, as he did so often in his songs, music which seems to blur the bar lines. Nicholas achieves a seamless flow. And what a luxury it is to have singers of the calibre of Ruari Bowen and William Thomas on hand for the tenor/bass duet (‘O soft self-wounding Pelican!’) There’s also a welcome opportunity to hear again soprano Áine Smith in a short solo earlier in the piece. Some of the best performances of this ecstatic piece that I’ve heard have been given by experienced young singers, whose fresh voices are particularly suited to Finzi’s music; this Merton performance certainly ranks among the best that I’ve heard.
I enjoyed this CD very much. The programme offers us the chance to hear nine fine English choral works. Most of them will be familiar to many listeners but perhaps not in these orchestral versions; some of them – the Bairstow and Dyson – were new to me with orchestral accompaniment. We know that the Merton choirs are among the elite of Britain’s collegiate choirs and this recording shows them, once again, on top form; their ongoing relationship with Delphian is hugely productive. The Britten Sinfonia plays with flexibility and distinction. The recording was made before the orchestra’s very existence was thrown into doubt by the decision of Arts Council England to withdraw all the funding they receive from that body. The quality of the orchestral playing on this disc is further proof of how crass and insensitive was that Philistine decision. Benjamin Nicholas conducts the programme expertly; there’s a lot of flair in evidence as he controls these large forces, but equally obvious is his attention to detail.
Delphian’s production values are up to their usual high standards. Producer Paul Baxter and engineer James Waterhouse have recorded the performances very successfully. One can hear lots of detail and the full ensemble is also reported very well. As I mentioned earlier, the resonant acoustic of All Hallows’ has been harnessed to good effect: I referenced the way one can hear the acoustic in the rests at the start of the Bairstow anthem; another example is the way the sound decays very naturally after the loud ending of the Dyson Magnificat, which adds welcome ambience. The only slight caveat I would make about the recording is that the reverberance of the acoustic does sometimes cloud the otherwise excellent diction of the singers in loud ensemble passages. I mentioned earlier that I believe the organ parts, in those works which use them, were recorded separately in Merton College Chapel; the sound of the organ has been integrated seamlessly. Michael Emery’s notes are excellent: they’re full of valuable information and make the listener keen to hear the music about which he’s writing.
This is a terrific disc.
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Sir Edward Bairstow (1874-1996)
Blessed city, heavenly Salem (1913)
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Ecce sacerdos magnus (1888, orch. 1893)
Sir George Dyson (1883-1964) orch. Douglas Hopkins (1902-1992)
Evening Service in D: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (1907, orch. 1935)
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Behold, O God our defender (1953)
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) orch. Edward Elgar
Jehovah, quam multi sunt hostes mei (ca 1680, orch. 1929)
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Lo, the full, final sacrifice (1946, orch. 1947)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Te Deum in G (1928, orch. Arnold Foster)
Sir Edward Elgar
The Spirit of the Lord (1903)