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Gabriel JACKSON (b.1962)
The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Emma Tring (soprano), Guy Cutting (tenor)
Choir of Merton College Oxford
Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia/Benjamin Nicholas
rec. 2018, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
DELPHIAN DCD34222 [69:01]

This recording of Gabriel Jackson’s 2014 Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ was released earlier this year when we were firmly in the Passion season. Now that we are seeing the end of Summer and approaching the Christmas season, it seems a little perverse to draw attention to it now. But not only does Gabriel Jackson’s music have such power and intensity that it transcends the restrictions of the liturgical season, this is also such an extraordinarily glowing performance, that it transcends the concept of time itself.

The passage of time seems an appropriate metaphor here in any case, since the work was conceived to mark the 750th anniversary of Merton College, and it draws on much of the vast heritage which has passed through the College in the intervening centuries. Even the musical language, for all its contemporary effects and its distinctly 21st century harmonic vocabulary, evokes the spirit which has for millennia been moved and inspired by the Passion of Jesus Christ.

The text of Jackson’s work does not draw on a single source but, collated by the College’s chaplain, Simon Jones, includes words taken from all four Gospel accounts of the Passion, along with the writings of Mertonian poets T S Eliot, Edmund Blunden and Thomas Carew. That text is delivered with impeccable clarity by the two soloists and by the Merton Choir, but the real drama and power of the work comes from the ingenious use of the 10-member ensemble, in which a whooping horn a twanging harp and a wailing saxophone provide an unusually eloquent commentary on the familiar yet deeply moving story. Benjamin Nicholas has a clear-sighted and perceptive view of the score, making much of the exotic musical effects and continually shifting palette of sounds from the instrumental ensemble and merging this with the vocal textures superbly.

The recording is beautifully warm and responsive and captures ideally the part-liturgical, part-concert character of the music which, in the words of Michael Emery’s booklet essay, “quietly acknowledges” the centuries old tradition of musical setting of the passion, while at the same time “it also stands apart from it”.

Marc Rochester
Previous review: John Quinn

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