The combination of a world première by renowned composer Gabriel Jackson, a newly devised Passion libretto by Dr Simon Jones and the Chapel Choir of Merton College, Oxford proved to be an exciting and memorable event for those one hundred or so people who made the effort last Friday evening to attend the opening concert of the fifth Merton College Passiontide Festival.

Jackson’s The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ was commissioned by Merton’s Warden and Fellows to celebrate the College’s 750th anniversary and will form the most substantial contribution to the Merton Choirbook project – a collection of over fifty new choral works by contemporary composers encompassing Jonathan Dove and Rihards Dubra. Performing the Passion in Merton College Chapel alongside the very accomplished chapel choir were the Oxford Contemporary Sinfonia, (triple woodwind, horn, harp, four strings and two percussionists playing nearly a dozen instruments) two soloists – the soprano, Emma Tring and tenor, Nick Pritchard (replacing an indisposed Ben Johnson) all directed by the safe hands of Benjamin Nicholas.

Gabriel Jackson © Malcolm Crowthers
Gabriel Jackson
© Malcolm Crowthers

This hour-long work (roughly seventy minutes in Friday’s performance) is an anthology-style Passion that artfully interleaves material from the four Gospel narratives with familiar Latin hymn texts and poetic verses by former Mertonians Edmund Blunden and TS Eliot. In addition to the Latin interpolations – Vexilla regis, Ave verum corpus, Ubi caritas and Crux fidelis, Simon Jones has incorporated the General Thanksgiving and a metrical version of Psalm 137, written respectively by Edward Reynolds and Thomas Carewe, both associated with Merton College in the early 17th century. With no Bach-style Evangelist, the narrative thread is divided between the four-part chorus and the two soloists.

The opening “Palm Sunday” sequence, with its arresting saxophone arabesques, contrasts organum-like choral declamation in Vexilla regis with florid solo writing for the tenor who sets in motion the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem on a donkey. Its vivid instrumental writing and striking dissonances change direction for “Anointing of Bethany”, where a lustrous Emma Tring, accompanied by harp and violin, presented a radiantly beautiful version of the General Thanksgiving. “Last Supper and Footwashing” gave the thirty-strong chorus a chance to demonstrate their superb diction and rhythmic articulation, a particularly impressive achievement as they appeared to be singing in near darkness. Equally impressive was the well-judged placing by Jackson and Jones of the Latin texts Ave verum corpus and Ubi caritas. The juxtaposition of bleak verses from the war poet Edmund Blunden into the “Gethsemane” narrative was a masterstroke, intelligently sung by Nick Pritchard and given spare accompanimental textures in this eclectic score. Martial rhythms and strident instrumental writing coloured the fifth movement, “Caiaphas, Peter and Pilate” where tenor and soprano soloists made a valiant effort to deliver their lengthy texts clearly. They were more successful in the higher vocal lines given them in “Crucifixion”, a starkly dramatic sequence where bass drum, saxophone and piccolo made highly effective contributions. And so to the final section, “The End and the Beginning”, where a glowing D major underpinned some of Jackson’s most luminous choral writing in lines from TS Elliot’s Little Gidding, concluding this Merton Passion in a mood something between peaceful resignation and hope.

The Passion, however, formed the second part of the evening which had begun with a selection of nine chorale preludes performed by William Whitehead on Merton’s new three-manual Dobson organ. Five Passion chorales by Bach were interspersed with contemporary offerings, one from Gabriel Jackson (2012) and three premières by Stephen Hough, Jon Laukvik and Matthew Martin. These contemporary offerings are part of the innovative Orgelbüchlein Project curated by William Whitehead who aims to plug the 118 gaps of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein with Choral Preludes by living composers. Of the new works presented on Friday Norwegian organist Jon Laukvik will now be a name to look out for in his quirky but attractive Prelude and the rapt Prelude by concert pianist Stephen Hough will, hopefully, gain more performances.

Gabriel Jackson is, of course, an already established composer and further performances in the UK of this recently published Passion (OUP) will be richly deserved. It is a work that brilliantly provides an illuminating alternative to traditional Passion settings and should attract the attention of enterprising choirs willing to explore a contemporary and intelligently conceived score.

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