I wandered into Leeds during lunch hour last week. I often walk in from my office. In part there's a regular excuse of a little shopping that needs doing; more truthfully, now I no longer have a dog I simply like to take the exercise.
Anyway, on this occasion I spotted the sale that was happening in the troubled HMV store, and in I went.
There's not much of a classical department in Leeds. Actually, I saw the department in Oxford a few months ago and I have to say there isn't much of one there either any more - the old basement sanctuary is, apparently, history. Life moves on. But in the limited section, I did find the recent Advent recording by the Choir of Merton College.
I have been meaning to purchase this for some time. Knowing I had a couple of long journeys coming up & time to enjoy it, I picked it up, paid for it, and took it home with me.
When I was an undergraduate at Merton the choir was a typical collection of volunteers corralled by the organ scholar into some semblance of harmony. They did a decent job. Like most Oxbridge choirs, they had a fairly solid mezzo-forte volume, not too many consonants, and a reasonably nice overall sound. A new chaplain, a new vision, and a new fundraising regime later, everything changed. A new choral foundation was born.
I suppose the new choir at Merton must be four years old. I attended the first concert they gave - and remember feeling that there was work to be done. I've not had chance to go back since.
Well, the work has been done.
First: That Advent recording is superb. From start to finish there are beautiful moments - a glorious sound matched with clear words, light and shade, and some dramatic full throttle singing when it really is needed. I was entranced particularly by the Es ist ein Ros towards the end.
And this weekend, being close by, I did make it back. I actually went to chapel for the first time in donkeys years to attend a service.
The music included the Howells Collegium Regale Mag & Nunc, performed gloriously. The final crescendo on each 'Amen' was thrilling. The Rutter Hymn to the Creator of Light was new to me (click this link for a Kings Cambridge version) and again excellent. The sort of music, throughout, that Evensong is all about - you bathe in it, and come out feeling cleansed by the experience.
Unlike Kings, of course, this is a mixed voice choir. Think Trinity Cambridge. And really, do think Trinity. That good. There were a couple of folk with colds & I was told they weren't quite on form - well, they were terrific. In no time flat they have gone from 'in need of work' to right up in the top reaches of college choirs. The beauty of a Psalm chanted with spoken rhythms, words falling away and not all sung with equal emphasis, yet almost every consonant crystal clear - goodness, that was special.
If I could ask for one thing more, it would be for some really quiet singing to be in there somewhere. The magic of all those voices producing hushed awe and deep restraint, contrasted with the volume and power that flashed at us from time to time - that would be the complete deal. I don't think we got close to that tonight. Mezzo piano was lovely, pianissimo never quite came.
A good choir reveals a good choir master. Benjamin Nicholas clearly is that and more. And hats off too to the chaplain, Simon Jones, for driving this project. It is transformational. As a Mertonian, and as a musician, it was a joy to be in that place and to experience that service. Importantly, as a Christian, though all these thoughts were around and having their place in my mind, ultimately they were actually secondary:
Merton College Choir provide simply superb traditional Anglican evensong worship. If that's what helps draw you close to God, then go and enjoy. You are in for a musical and spiritual treat. I hope to be back again soon.