Merton College Choir’s Searing MacMillan Launches the 2019 Three Choirs Festival Auspiciously

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival [1] – Weir, Tabakova, MacMillan, Pärt, Jackson: Choir of Merton College, Oxford; Bristol Ensemble / Benjamin Nicholas (conductor) Tewkesbury Abbey, 26.7.2019. (JQ)

Benjamin Nicholas (c) John Cairns

Judith WeirAve Regina Cæloruam
Dobrinka Tabakova Alma redemptoris mater
Sir James MacMillan Miserere
Arvo Pärt Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten
Gabriel JacksonCountless and wonderful are the Ways to Praise God
Sir James MacMillan – Seven Last Words from the Cross

On the eve of the opening day of the 2019 Three Choirs Festival, this concert of contemporary sacred music offered, in a sense, a substantial upbeat to the Festival. However, it was also a deeply satisfying concert in its own right. Benjamin Nicholas is the Reed Rubin Director of Music at Merton College Oxford. He brought his choir to what are for him very familiar surroundings: prior to taking up his appointment at Merton he was for some twelve years the Director of the Tewkesbury Abbey Schola Cantorum.

Most of the music on the programme I had heard before. In the case of the pieces by Judith Weir (b 1954) and Dobrinka Tabakova (b 1980), these are works written for the significant compendium of modern sacred music,  The Merton Choirbook, an ambitious project with which the College marked its 750th anniversary in 2014. These two pieces were recorded by the choir on their album, The Marian Collection in 2014 (review). I’d previously heard them, therefore, on CD, recorded in the intimate acoustic of Merton College’s chapel. It was instructive to hear the music live and in the much more spacious acoustic of Tewkesbury Abbey. Judith Weir’s celebratory piece was strongly projected by the 30-strong choir. Dobrinka Tabakova’s Alma redemptoris mater came across marvellously. The harmonic language is consistently intriguing and in this performance the music was very well served by the choir; I admired especially the attractive soprano sound and the really firm bass line – unusually sonorous for a student choir. I liked Tabakova’s piece very much when I heard it on CD; heard live it made an even better impression and it was well received by the audience.

James MacMillan made his setting of the Miserere in 2009 for Harry Christophers and The Sixteen. It’s a conscious homage to Allegri’s famous setting but in no way is it a pastiche. The homage is overt in that MacMillan incorporates plainsong passages into his setting, using the same chant that Allegri employed, but unlike Allegri he harmonises the chant, and to telling effect. The result is a tremendous piece; the music is modern but it bridges the centuries back to Allegri with ease. MacMillan shows his great respect for the past but he takes that tradition and renews it. The performance was superb; it’s a demanding score to perform, with the harmonies requiring tuning that is spot on, but one would not have been aware of the difficulties, such was the assurance with which Nicholas’s scrupulously prepared choir delivered the music.

After some platform rearrangement we heard the Bristol Ensemble in Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten. The Estonian composer was moved to write this piece for strings and tubular bell in 1977 after hearing of the death of Britten at the end of 1976. Timothy Symonds’ programme note made clear that the design of the composition is musically sophisticated but what the listener is mainly conscious of, as so often with this composer, is an extreme economy of means. The music exerts something of an hypnotic effect as the strings play their musical patterns against the frequent punctuations of the tolling bell. The piece was played well and with suitable emotional intensity but I confess I found my attention wandering. This isn’t music that moves me and I wonder if it has had its day.

However, my attention was firmly refocussed by Gabriel Jackson’s Countless and wonderful are the Ways to Praise God, with which the first half closed. This piece for SATB choir and strings, first performed in 2013, was the only work on tonight’s programme that I’ve not previously heard. It’s a setting of a short poem by the Estonian writer Doris Kareva (b 1958). Jackson, a great admirer of Kareva’s work, has set the text in an English translation by Tiina Aleman. I’ve long been a fan of Jackson’s choral music and this piece seems to me an excellent example of his unique and highly successful approach to choral writing. The piece opens with an exultant choral outburst but then almost immediately falls back in volume. There follows light, energetic writing for the strings which might lead the listener to think that the tempo is quick but, in fact, when you can see the performance it’s clear from the conductor’s beat that the tempo is quite moderate. When the choir starts to sing again the sopranos have long, lyrical lines set against busy string writing; the effect is marvellous. As the piece unfolds and the full choir becomes involved the composer’s gift for inventive, light-suffused choral textures is much in evidence. The poet lists several ways in which to praise God, the last of which is dance. When Jackson gets to that word, he takes an appropriate cue and the music becomes appropriately energetic. Kareva’s concluding words are ‘every day is a holy day’ and Jackson sets these words marvellously in blocks of soft, richly harmonised homophonic choral writing, initially punctuated by short viola solos. At the end a wonderful key change brought the piece to a gentle, warm conclusion. Superbly performed tonight, this struck me as a most inventive piece and I’m keen to hear it again,

The Jackson piece made a tenuous personal link for me to the work which occupied the second half of the concert. I have heard all of the CDs released by Benjamin Nicholas and the Choir of Merton College but, prior to this concert, I have only heard them once in live performance. That was back in April 2014 when I attended the first performance of Gabriel Jackson’s The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (review), of which they have recently made a superb recording (review). As the climax to their Three Choirs Festival concert, they offered a performance of another searingly eloquent response to the Passion story in the shape of Sir James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross.

How times change! As the composer reminded us in his programme note, this work for choir and string orchestra was commissioned by BBC Television and broadcast in seven nightly segments during Holy Week in 1994. Twenty-five years, on with BBC TV representing a desert as far as serious music is concerned (apart from transmissions from the Proms), it’s inconceivable that the Corporation would commission such a serious and unsettling work of musical art; but shouldn’t a public service broadcaster be doing just that, if only from time to time? I’ve experienced only one live account of Seven Last Words from the Cross; a fine performance by a local choir in Gloucester Cathedral in 2005, but I know it through two magnificent recordings, conducted by Stephen Layton (review) and by Graham Ross (review).

James MacMillan is a committed Roman Catholic and he’s written a lot of sacred music. Understandably, the Passion story is hugely important to him and he’s composed settings of the St John Passion (review) and the St Luke Passion (review). Seven Last Words from the Cross, written when MacMillan was thirty-five, is an uncompromising, even confrontational work. Much of the music is tough and it confronts the listener, quite rightly, with the horrors and degradation of the Crucifixion.  The music is arresting and never less than intense and dramatic. Benjamin Nicholas established tension right from the start of the work and never let that tension falter. The second section, ‘Woman, behold thy son’, offered a prime example of this tension. The choir repeats those words many times yet each time the harmonies are different and so expert was the balancing of the choir that these changes registered every time. The first few outcries from the choir are separated by long silences. Nicholas judged the length of these silence perfectly, thereby increasing the impact of the next choral entry.

The fourth section, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani’, features choral writing at the extremes with important passages for low, sonorous basses and for stratospherically high sopranos. The Merton choir passed this test of technique with flying colours. In the following section, ‘I thirst’, the music carries an extraordinary sense of apprehension Nicholas, marvellously supported by his singers and players, really brought this home to the audience. The keening sorrow of the choral writing in section six, ‘It is finished’, made a terrific impact – I thought the Merton sopranos were marvellous here. The last movement, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’, is daring in that the choir’s contribution is swiftly behind us after they have sung the words in question as a great cry of anguish. Thereafter, the movement concludes with several minutes of music for the strings only. This is a lament in which the Scottish traditional music influence, apparent elsewhere in the score, is experienced particularly strongly. The music expresses loss and profound sorrow but as it unfolds the harmonies gradually make us aware that acceptance is also being expressed. MacMillan’s strong faith enables him to realises and express in music that the Crucifixion, horrific though it was, was not in vain; beyond that suffering the believer can understand that there was a positive purpose. The music fades a niente, the final faint flickerings from the violins surely representing Christ’s spirit ebbing away.

After such an unsettling experience applause seemed almost an impertinence. Yet applause was fully justified for we had heard a superb performance. The manifold technical difficulties of the score were triumphantly overcome and we heard a performance of power, intensity and great commitment. I especially admired the control exhibited by all the performers. This is a work that often operates at extreme dynamic range. Whenever either the singers or the players were required to use loud dynamics, they did so fervently but with no suggestion of forcing the tone. Even more successful was the mastery of very quiet dynamics by all concerned; nowhere was this better illustrated than by the precisely controlled slivers of string sound that we heard as the work breathed its last. Benjamin Nicholas conducted with total belief in the music and it was clear that he had prepared his forces scrupulously. I believe that the Merton College choir is engaged in a series of CD recordings, each of which features the music of a single composer. The two James MacMillan pieces heard tonight would fit nicely onto a CD and would complement each other marvellously. Were Nicholas and his first-rate choir to record these works it would be a singular addition to their already excellent discography.

The composer celebrated his sixtieth birthday a couple of weeks ago and tonight’s performance was part of the Three Choirs Festival’s birthday tribute – MacMillan will be attending the Festival on 31 July and Radio 3’s broadcast Choral Evensong that day from Gloucester Cathedral will be devoted to his music. Tonight’s concert, and particularly the searing account of Seven Last Words from the Cross, was not only a fine birthday salute to one of our country’s finest and most original composers, it also got the Three Choirs Festival 2019 off to a most auspicious start.

John Quinn

For more about the Three Choir’s Festival click here.

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