Sleeper’s Prayer - Choral Music from North America
Alex Little, Tom Fetherstonhaugh (organ)
Claire Wickes (flute)
Choir of Merton College, Oxford/Benjamin Nicolas (conductor & solo organ)
rec. 2019, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford
DELPHIAN DCD34232 [63:35]
As Michael Emery writes in his notes, it’s very appropriate that Merton College Choir should record an album of American music. The explosion of musical activity at Merton since 2008, when the present choir was established, owes much to American benefaction; the funding was provided by the philanthropic Foundation established by the American businessman, Reed Rubin, an alumnus of the College. The American connection was enhanced a few years later in 2014 when Dobson Pipe Organ Builders of Iowa installed the splendid new organ in the Chapel.
Works by two composers provide the bulk of the programme. I’ve heard quite a few pieces by Nico Muhly, but not any of those included here. In fact, A Hymn on the Nativity and A Song of Ephrem the Syrian appear here in premiere recordings. Senex puerum portabat is a setting which combines the Magnificat anthems for the Feast of the Purification and for Christmas Day. At first the choir is unaccompanied and as they sing some sopranos repeat insistently a single note. The choral harmonies around that monotone are lovely. Eventually (2:09), the choir are joined by a brass group and the combined ensemble sings and plays the Christmas antiphon, ‘Hodie Christus natus est’. This section of the piece is fittingly exultant and I specially liked the tumultuous effect that Muhly creates through overlapping vocal parts at the word ‘Gloria’. There’s another Christmas piece, A Hymn on the Nativity. This sets words by the English poet Ben Jonson (1572-1637). Here, the choir is accompanied by the organ but the instrument yields precedence to the voices throughout. The music has light, airy textures and breathes an air of sophisticated innocence. It’s most attractive. The other vocal offering from Muhly is his recent A Song of Ephrem the Syrian. The words are by Ephrem, a fourth century poet and mystic. The work was commissioned for Merton College by the Reed Foundation and it was written to include the participation of the Choristers of Merton College. This is a recently founded ensemble of girls’ voices – 21 singers are listed in the booklet – and I suspect this is their recording debut. Michael Emery rightly describes Muhly’s piece as “rapturous and richly chordal”. The pure young voices of the Choristers add an extra degree of freshness to the choral sound. I think this is a super piece in which the ecstasy of the words is conveyed both through the music and the performance.
The other featured composer is David Lang, whose music I don’t believe I have previously encountered. If the texts in these settings are typical then he’s one of those people who chooses to write everything in lower case. again is for unaccompanied choir. The text is an adaptation of words from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes and the essential idea is that in the circle of life everything comes round again. Lang illustrates this by the compositional device of having the choir repeat broken chords in a circular pattern. Expressed baldly like that, it doesn’t sound terribly interesting but I found the music was very effective in practice. The restrained volume of the piece adds to its interest. We also hear if I sing, also for unaccompanied choir, which is an interesting setting of words from Psalm 101. This is its first recoreding. sleeper’s prayer was originally for solo treble and organ, I believe, but here it’s presented in a new arrangement for choir and organ which Lang made expressly for this recording. The organ accompaniment is akin to continuous arpeggios and the fragmented nature of the organ writing contrasts effectively with the choir’s homophonic material. It’s a tranquil piece and creates a rather hypnotic effect.
Lang wrote sleeper’s prayer as an 80th birthday tribute to Steve Reich. Stylistically, therefore, there’s a lot to be said for following Lang’s piece with an organ arrangement of music by another minimalist. This is from the end of Act III of Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha. I have tried in the past but I’m afraid I simply don’t get Glass’s music and this piece fails to improve my appreciation. Other than getting louder and varying the musical patterns, the music just doesn’t seem to ‘go’ anywhere. For example, it’s only at 4:27 - by which time the very limited basic musical material has been, in my view, done to death - that a second idea is introduced in the right hand. I’ve no doubt the composition is technically ingenious but… The last couple of minutes, when the music has attained full volume, does demonstrate the full splendour of the Merton organ but, frankly, I wish a different piece has been chosen which might have shown off both the instrument and Benjamin Nicholas’s technique to better advantage. On the other hand, I accept that a different choice might not have fitted int the overall programme design.
Nicholas offers two other organ solos. Muhly’s Rev’d Mustard His Installation Prelude was written for the installation of a friend of the composer, a clergyman, into his new London parish. The title indicates that Muhly was looking back to the organ music of the Tudor age. It’s a toccata but it’s not an obviously showy work. Rather, it makes its effect in a relatively subdued fashion, sometimes by the use of irregular rhythms, before coming to an abrupt and rather unexpected stop. It’s a witty little piece which I enjoyed. The other Muhly piece, Take Care, is like its companion in that it doesn’t really raise its voice. In other respects, though, it is different. The music is slow, reflective and pleasing.
We hear from other composers, but in each case, they’re represented by a single work. Libby Larsen’s I will sing and raise a psalm is a setting of words by St Francis of Assisi. It’s for choir and organ and Michael Emery hits the nail on the head when he refers to “music of breathlessness and barely contained excitement”. It’s a joyful piece and most attractive. Cedit, hyems by Abbie Betinis is an interesting proposition. The composer combines two sets of early medieval words which speak of Winter. An essential element is the inclusion of a solo flute part, here delivered superbly by Claire Wickes. Initially, both flute and voices convey the chilly stillness of winter’s grip but before long the music moves into a joyful celebration of the coming of Christ into a wintry world. It’s a most imaginative piece.
To close, the Merton choir take us back to some of the roots of American music. First, we hear an arrangement by Gerre Hancock of the moving Spiritual Deep River. Here. Hancock achieves the feat of clothing the tune in rich, chromatic harmonies without ever suffocating it. It’s a lovely arrangement. Lovely too – and equally rich in harmonies – is The Road Home by Stephen Paulus. The tune which Paulus used is found in a hymn book, The Southern Harmony Songbook, published in 1835, but he got his friend Michael Dennis Browne (b 1940) to write some new words. Browne’s text fits the music like a glove and the result is an expressive and very satisfying piece. This, and the Hancock arrangement, prove to be an ideal way to finish the programme, especially when sung as expertly as here.
The Merton College Choir are on top form throughout this programme and the other musicians who join them at various times perform to the same high standard. In just a few years Benjamin Nicholas has built this choir into one of the foremost collegiate choirs in the UK and this disc offers another example of their excellence in whatever music comes their way. This latest programme has been discerningly put together. The contents of Merton College discs are invariably enterprising and this latest example is no exception.
Engineer Paul Baxter is by now well versed in recording this choir in the wonderful acoustics of the Merton College Chapel. Once again, he has presented the choir – and the organ – in clear, atmospheric and expertly balanced sound which shows performers and music to optimum advantage. As usual, the quality of Delphian’s documentation is excellent.
Nico MUHLY (b. 1981)
Senex puerum portabat (2008) [7:18]
David LANG (b 1957)
again (after ecclesiastes) (2005) [4:22]
Rev’d Mustard His Installation Prelude (organ solo) (2013) [3:05]
if I sing (after psalm 101) (2017) [3:46]
A Hymn on the Nativity (2010) [4:29]
Take Care (Hudson Preludes No 1 for organ) (2005) [4:47]
Libby LARSEN (b 1950)
I will sing and raise a psalm [5:06]
A Song of Ephrem the Syrian (2019) [5:25]
sleeper’s prayer (2016, arr. 2019) [7:20]
Philip GLASS (b 1937)
Satyagraha, Act III: Conclusion (organ solo) [7:43]
Arr. Michael Riesman (b 1943), adapted Daniel Joyce (1952-1998)
Abbie BETINIS (b 1980)
Cedit, hyems [3:20]
Arr. Gerre HANCOCK (1934-2012)
Deep River [3:20]
Stephen PAULUS (1949-2014)
The Road Home (2001) [3:28]