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Sleeper’s Prayer – Choral Music from North America
Choir of Merton College Oxford/Benjamin Nicholas (organ)
Merton Brass
Claire Wickes (flute), Alex Little, Tom Fetherstonhaugh (organ)
rec. 2019, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
DELPHIAN DCD34232 [63:35]

With new recordings from the choir of Merton College Oxford, generally appearing annually following recording sessions during the University’s summer recess, it is easy to trace the evolving quality of the choral singing and the increasing level of musical insight. They have now grown into a very secure and accomplished group, and while there is a certain breathy edge to the soprano line, this is often used to great effect. Here is a choir which is not afraid to tackle challenging, unconventional repertory, which reflects on the fact that the choral foundation at Merton dates back only to 2008. The latest challenge they have set themselves recognises the strong North American associations with the College’s musical foundation; it is a programme of North American choral music all of which has been composed within the last 40 years.

What are those strong North American associations? In an outstanding booklet note by former Merton Organ Scholar, Michael Emery, we learn that the chapel’s choral foundation was financed by the American businessman and philanthropist, Reed Rubin, while the organ was built in 2014 by the American firm of Dobson. A programme of American sacred music for choir and organ would seem a fitting recompense for this trans-Atlantic corroboration, especially since two of the works, at least, were written with the Merton choir in mind; Muhly’s A Song of Ephrem the Syrian and Lang’s sleeper’s prayer (Lang seems to have a powerful aversion to the use of uppercase characters in his titles)

That said, the music chosen is not really fully representative of the range of sacred choral music coming out of the US this century, and focuses principally on a style which the blurb on the back of the CD case describes as “austere postminimalism”. (I might also add that it also shows how difficult it is to end a piece of austere postminimalism effectively.) The programme also concentrates largely on the work of two composers, Nico Muhly and David Lang. The former’s Senex puerum portabat makes use not only of the Merton choir but of the 8-strong Merton Brass, and is the most dramatic work here. Muhly’s A Hymn on the Nativity includes a twinkling organ part (played by Merton organ scholar Tom Fetherstonhaugh) which brings a pleasing touch of sparkle to a disc which, despite the relative brevity of the items, is a little heavy on musical seriousness. For his part, Lang’s contributions tend to be the more unrelentingly austere of the two, the title track (sleeper’s prayer) setting chunks of choral text above a disjunct but continually moving organ line, while again exudes a churchy atmosphere by being based on a rotating descending motiv which recalls the ringing of bells

Benjamin Nicholas himself plays two organ solos. The first of these is Muhly’s sparkling Rev’d Mustard His Installation Prelude, which despite (or perhaps because of) its Cluedoesque title, is becoming something of a modern day classic in the instrument’s repertory. The second is a transcription of the conclusion of Act 3 from Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha which concerns the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Its inclusion in this programme may seem a little curious, but I can do no better than quote Emery who suggests; “The music seems particularly suited to the organ’s capacity to produce mechanical sounding lines and evenly terraced dynamic changes”. It certainly does that (if not much else).

After so much “austere postminimalism” it comes as a real treat to experience more open and broad musical vistas. Libby Larsen’s I Will Sing and Raise a Psalm brings a wonderful touch of brightness to the disc, and Nicholas directs a scintillating performance from his singers (with Asisstant Organist Alex Little superbly handling the colourful organ part). The evocative flute of Claire Wickes introduces us to the highly atmospheric writing of Abbie Betinis, whose Cedit, hyems of 2003 is the only work to move beyond the traditional in its writing for voices. Here the Merton choristers are asked to do some occasional whispering and other vocalisations, but they do it with such great ease and Nicholas incorporates it so unobtrusively into his briskly-paced account of the piece, that it serves its purpose perfectly and does not begin to sound in any way gimmicky: and here’s a work which knows how to end properly. Gerre Hancock’s sumptuously romantic arrangement of Deep River shows just what a rich and warm sound the Merton choir can produce when the occasion demands, and that quality of their tone is revealed to even greater effect in a warm-hearted, opulent account of The Road Home in a sympathetic arrangement by Stephen Paulus.

Marc Rochester
Previous review: John Quinn

Nico MUHLY (b. 1981): Senex puerum portabat [7:18]
David LANG (b 1957): again [4:22]
Nico MUHLY: Rev’d Mustard His Installation Prelude [3:05]
David LANG: if I sing [3:46]
Nico MUHLY: A Hymn on the Nativity [4:29]
Nico MUHLY: Take Care (Hudson Preludes No 1 for organ) [4:47]
Libby LARSEN (b 1950): I will sing and raise a psalm [5:06]
Nico MUHLY: A Song of Ephrem the Syrian [5:25]
David LANG: sleeper’s prayer [7:20]
Philip GLASS (b 1937), Arr. Michael Riesman: Satyagraha, Act III: Conclusion [7:43]
Abbie BETINIS (b 1980): Cedit, hyems [3:20]
Arr. Gerre HANCOCK (1934-2012: Deep River [3:20]
Stephen PAULUS (1949-2014): The Road Home [3:28]

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