'In the Beginning'
The Choir of Merton College, Oxford, was founded in 2008 and this debut CD will undoubtedly establish them as one of the UK’s finest choral ensembles. Listening to their superb performances and seamless blending of voices, it’s hard to believe that the choir is only four years old. They have a vast range of dynamics and vocal colouring, and they’re fully responsive to the different styles of the 16th- and 17th-century polyphonic compositions and the rich chordal textures of the 20th- and 21st-century pieces. I’m sure this is the happy outcome of having joint directors of music, and the skill and experience of both Peter Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas bring out the best from their singers.
The imaginative programme explores beginnings, as heard in the famous opening words of the Book of Genesis and St John’s Gospel, and endings, represented by the words of the Nunc dimittis plus the story of the murder of King David’s son Absalom. Despite the gap of three centuries, the compositions of Gombert, Palestrina and Weelkes sit comfortably with the modern works, and the serene polyphony of the early music repertoire is every bit as expressive as the sumptous harmonies of the pieces by Holst, Łukaszewski and Whitacre. Merton College deserve our gratitude for commissioning Gabriel Jackson’s In the beginning, a marvellous setting of familiar words, much enhanced by the descriptive accompaniment of organist Natasha Tyrwhitt-Drake. Beth Mackay is an excellent soloist in Copland’s mini-oratorio and her bold, declamatory singing is ideally suited to the words from Genesis. An intensely moving recording, strongly recommended.