In the Beginning

Choir of Merton College, Oxford / Benjamin Nicholas / Peter Phillips

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In the Beginning Review

by Stephen Eddins

In the Beginning is the debut album of the Choir of Merton College, Oxford, founded and directed by Peter Phillips and Benjamin Nicholas. The eight works are related to three themes: there are three Nunc Dimittis settings, three of David's lament over Absalom, and two using "In the beginning" texts, one from Genesis and one from the Gospel of John. The varied repertoire, ranging from the Renaissance to the 21st century, showcases the group's versatility and includes works by Nicolas Gombert, Palestrina, Weelkes, Holst, Copland, Pawel Lukaszewski, Eric Whitacre, and a newly commissioned piece by Gabriel Jackson. It's an attractive selection of pieces and the contrast of the various settings of the same texts adds interest. Jackson's In the Beginning was the Word, for choir and organ is a warmly expressive setting of the opening of John that uses lush harmonies. The pieces by Whitacre and Lukaszewski are likewise written in a relatively conservative but rich harmonic language. The Whitacre starts with an Arvo Pärt-like simplicity but builds to a climax of wrenching intensity and is the album's highlight. Copland's In the Beginning, an 18-minute setting of the first and the opening of the second creation story from Genesis, is written in the characteristic wide-open-spaces tonal idiom reminiscent of Appalachian Spring. It's an entirely pleasant piece from moment to moment but without much of a larger sense of direction. Mezzo-soprano Beth Mackay is tremendously impressive in the extensive solo part, though, singing with full, sumptuous tone, agility, and expressiveness. The choir, made up of choral scholars from the College of Merton College, has a fresh, youthful sound; a smooth, silky blend; and all the technical finesse to handle the music's demands. The recorded sound can be very resonant, and it may be excessive for some listeners. When the chorus is at full volume, particularly in the Copland, the sound can become shrill and harsh, probably a consequence of the recording rather than the performance.

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