Concert review by Tony Scotland

Merton College Choir

Saturday 16th May 2009

Merton College Chapel


Berkeley's old college at Oxford, Merton, has enhanced its music-making with a new, mixed-voice virtuoso chapel choir. Under the joint directorship of Peter Phillips, superstar of Renaissance choral music, and Benjamin Nicholas (ex-Lincoln College and Tewkesbury Abbeys Choirs), the Merton Chapel Choir is composed of 25 students from various Oxford colleges, sixteen of them choral scholars and two organ scholars.

Established at the beginning of the current academic year, the choir gave its inaugural performance at a concert in Merton Chapel on 16 May, and immediately made its mark not only as a model for a mixed collegiate choir but even as a rival for the older, equivalent choirs of Oxford (Queen's) and Cambridge (Caius, Clare, Trinity and Jesus).

The concert began in the Ante-Chapel with the eight-voice anthem Hear My Prayer by Purcell, after which the Junior Organ Scholar Natasha Tyrwhitt-Drake played Purcell's Voluntary in G. Works by Thomas Tomkins and his teacher William Byrd preceded another organ solo, the Praeludium in D (WV 139) by Buxtehude, before the Choir re-assembled in front of the Wren screen, at the west end of the Chapel, where Peter Phillips conducted Berkeley's beautiful setting of Psalm 23.

Hardly a Sunday goes by without a performance of this anthem in one or more of our great cathedrals, but the Merton choir gave it a freshness and spontaneity that belied all the work that must have gone into achieving such precision and polish. Here, as in the rest of their programme, the inner parts (so often lost in lesser performances) were noticeably strong and intense, and the overall sound vigorous, even muscular. This may seem an inappropriate adjective to choose to describe a choir in which the top line is composed of sopranos, but these young women have the bell-like steadiness of boys' voices without that gossamer insubstantiality which can be a mixed blessing. The soloist was Harriet Hansell, a second-year music student, and a fine violinist as well as a choral scholar.

The first half of the concert ended with a premiere: Gabriel Jackson's brilliantly original (and vocally challenging) setting of the familiar words at the start of St. John's Gospel. Ben Nicholas conducted a performance that was as technically meticulous as it was emotionally exciting.

In the second part the choir sang a psalm and a motet by Monteverdi, John Tavener's Orthodox-inspired As One Who Has Slept and five spirituals by Tippett; and the Senior Organ Scholar Christopher Chan played Bach's Fugue in B Minor BWV 544.

In term time the Merton Chapel Choir sings two evening services a week (one on Wednesday and one on Sunday), as well as the occasional extra mid-week service for special occasions. You can hear the choir singing Berkeley's The Lord Is My Shepherd in a podcast of Evensong at Merton on 29 April, which was recorded live by Steve Smith of Gimell Records (the Tallis Scholars' own recording company) and is available on iTunes (go to iTunes Store, type 'Merton Chapel' into the search box, hit the return key and choose 'Choral Evensong - April 29'). The Responses are by Smith, the Psalm is 67, the Canticles are Howells's Collegium Regale, and the Voluntary is the same composer's Saraband in modo Elegiaco. The Officiant is the Chaplain, the Revd Dr Simon Jones, the Directors of Music are Peter Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas, and the Organ Scholars Christopher Chan and Natasha Tyrwhitt-Drake. Dr Jones's introduction to the Berkeley anthem starts at 25m 15s into the recording.

The concert launched the Friends of the Choir of Merton College, which has been set up to promote and support the Choir's current and future activities. Annual membership is 60. For further information contact the Development Office at Merton College (telephone 01865-276310).