Living on the periphery of the choral music world, I’m aware that there's a lot of reasonably good singing going on in the UK. It’s an unusual week when the post doesn’t contain at least eighty minutes’ worth of some choir or other. I’m sorry to say, however, that quite a few of these discs make a quick exit via my CD player to the recycling facility. Recorded choral music is a danger zone for fuzzy recording, tuning and harmony. The over-availability of choral discs means it’s harder to track down that special sound, and those numerous issues have to be filled, sometimes with repertoire that is either too familiar, or deservedly unfamiliar. Paraphrasing the famous wartime poster, I sometimes wonder, ‘Is your recording really necessary?’
It was therefore a pleasure to be lifted out of this negative mindset by the latest postal arrival – The Marian Collection from Merton College, Oxford – and to spend a weekend absorbed by frequent re-listenings. I should disclose that an initial incentive to tear open the cellophane (another hazard of CD listening) was the presence of my own short track, Ave Regina Caelorum. The Marian theme (music in praise of the Virgin Mary) of course links the whole collection; but paradoxically, it’s the big stylistic gap between early and recent music which makes it cohere. With Peter Phillips conducting part of the disc, you can expect fascinating old pieces (from the Eton Choirbook for instance) which are almost novelties . But it’s the new-ness of the new music (all recently commissioned by Merton College) that provides illumination for everything else – with none of the harmonic blandness so regularly found in contemporary choral composition. I particularly admired Dobrinka Tabakova’s setting of Alma Redemptoris Mater; ingenious polytonality resolving itself logically, but warmly. A final peril of choral discs – thick blocks of boring information in tiny print – is avoided by Alexandra Coghlan’s lively essay, proving that the once noble art of writing ‘sleeve notes’ is not yet dead.