JACKSON The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Conceived to mark the 750th anniversary of Merton College, Oxford, in 2014, the Merton Choirbook project set out to create ‘the 21st century’s finest single collection of new choral and organ music’. A glance down the resulting volume – anthems, hymns, psalms and antiphons by everyone from Harrison Birtwistle and Ēriks Ešenvalds to Kerry Andrew and Judith Weir – makes a strong case, and it’s one only being reinforced as the works gradually make their way into the recording catalogue.
The centrepiece of the project is a 70-minute Passion setting by Gabriel Jackson. Recorded here for the first time by the Choir of Merton College and the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia, it’s a work closely bound up with the college’s history and community, but one that gives every promise of a rich future life beyond both. Chaplain Simon Jones has collated texts not only from the four Gospels and the King James Bible (part of which was translated at Merton) but also from Mertonian poets TS Eliot, Edmund Blunden and Thomas Carew to create a devotional collage that follows in the Anglican tradition of Vaughan Williams, Howells and Benjamin Britten.
A 10-piece ensemble, dominated by the glitter of harp, percussion and high woodwind, gives the work its dramatic scope, by turns taut and lean and then thickly spread, rich with melodic embroidery. The arresting opening – a saxophone erupting suddenly out of low instrumental rumbling into an ecstatic, primal arabesque of sound, like a latter-day Rite of Spring – sets the tone for a work whose chant-inflected lines and modal tonality speak directly and unaffectedly.
Texture talks the loudest here, whether in the keening vocal flickers and ornaments that sob through melodies or the sudden light-dark shifts of orchestration. With no Evangelist figure, the Passion narrative passes more fluidly between two soloists (soprano Emma Tring and tenor Guy Cutting) and the main choral body. Storytelling is contemplative rather than slavishly dramatic – a meditation on action, rather than action itself.
Contrasts are telling, as the music moves from the lambent beauty of ‘Anointing at Bethany’ (soprano, violin, harp) to the disorientating horror of Gethsemane. It all adds up to an effective, emotionally charged contemporary Passion, though the Eliot-texted last movement feels uneasy. This is poetry too self-sufficient to be bent into a lyric, and fights back against the musical attempt to assume it into a triumphant closing apotheosis.