The album’s title packs a double meaning. The musical theme of the program is beginnings and endings. The opening of the Book of Genesis (Aaron Copland) and the Gospel of John (Gabriel Jackson) take care of beginnings. The endings are covered by three settings of the canticle associated with Christian evening services, the Nunc dimittis (“Lord, lettest thy servant depart in peace”). There are also a number of lamentations on the death of King David’s son Absalom. On another level, this is the first album by the newly formed Choir of Merton College, Oxford, so it’s a beginning for them.
This is a marvelously well-constructed and brilliantly sung program. Jackson’s In the Beginning was the Word, commissioned by Merton College, opens the album and it’s another gem from this fascinating and highly accessible composer. Jackson’s setting has a hypnotic quality that’s never dull, harmonies that are slippery but beautiful, and a striking organ part that tastefully underscores the text. If you don’t know Jackson’s music, this piece should get you hooked (you can then move on to Not No Faceless Angel for more).
The “David and Absalom set” opens with Nicolas Gombert’s Lugebat David Absalon (“David mourned for Absalon”) which is sung with color, warmth and clarity. Thomas Weelkes’ famous When David Heard really comes to life with those pained harmonies raising goosebumps. Contemporary composer Eric Whitacre’s When David Heard is heart-breaking beautiful with its sustained cries of “my son” and “Absalon,” here’s a composition that communicates a palpable sense of grief. Of the Nunc dimittis settings, I was most taken with Gustav Holst’s, which has a fetching lightness. A stirring performance of Copland’s a cappella mini oratorio In the Beginning closes the recording.
With the Tallis Scholars’ Peter Phillips and Tewkesbury Abbey’s Benjamin Nicholas on hand as music directors you know what you are going to get from the choir; perfect blend, rhythmic precision and an overall stylistic intelligence that’s difficult to top. Mezzo-soprano Beth Mackay’s bold, clear tone is ideal in the Copland and organist Natasha Tyrwhitt-Drake plays Jackson’s spiky organ part brilliantly.
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