Orchestral Anthems: Dyson | Howells | Elgar | Finzi

For the Choir of Merton College, Oxford’s first collaboration with Britten Sinfonia, Benjamin Nicholas has brought together a collection of sacred works from the first half of the twentieth century.A little-known fact is that these stalwarts of the English repertory were either originally intended to be heard with orchestra, or subsequently orchestrated by their composer or a close colleague.

Written for enthronements, coronations and the nation’s grandest choral festivals, these national ‘standards’ arehere brought back to life, their orchestral accompaniments affording them the richness, pomp and majesty associated with that epoch.

"Hearing the familiar introduction to Edward Bairstow's Blessed city, heavenly Salemplayed by a substantial number of orchestral strings rather than the organ is quite a shock to the system ... The 42 undergraduate and postgraduate members of Merton College Choir and 18 Girl Choristers rise with aplomb to the challenge of matching the superb Britten Sinfonia, producing a rich, yet bright sound that is very different from that of most cathedral choirs that have recorded this repertoire. They revel in the long lines and emotional depth of large-scale anthems, and in the splendour of Hopkins' arrangement of Dyson's Evening Service in D, embellished with orchestral trumpets and tuba. From beginning to end of the album everyone involved sounds as though they are having a wonderful time, and as a listener I shared their enjoyment"

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

"One for fans of English choral music, but not as you expect to hear it: Orchestral Anthems combines the beautifully drilled Choir of Merton College, Oxford and soloists, with Britten Sinfonia, nuanced and stylish, conducted by Benjamin Nicholas ...The Anglican choral favourite, Finzi’s Lo, the full, final sacrifice, orchestrated for the 1947 Three Choirs festival and full of subtle woodwind detail, stands out. Dyson’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis are notably rousing. An Elgar orchestration of Purcell (1659-95) is the only outsider but also a lasting inspiration for all these composers ..."

The Choir of Merton College, Oxford has built up a substantial discography with Delphian but, in terms of forces involved, I fancy this is their biggest project to date – and quite possibly Delphian’s biggest project also ... There’s a beguiling, soft warmth to the sound of the choir and the strings in the background while in the foreground the soprano soloist [Aine Smith] offers beautiful, poised singing ... Turning to Lo the full final sacrifice, I think it’s a winner in every sense. The orchestral contribution is excellent throughout, while the Merton singers give a marvellous account of Finzi’s often tricky music. In particular, Crashaw’s mystical imagery is complex yet the words come over very naturally in this performance. That’s thanks in no small measure to Benjamin Nicholas’s conducting ... We know that the Merton choirs are among the elite of Britain’s collegiate choirs and this recording shows them, once again, on top form; their ongoing relationship with Delphian is hugely productive ... Delphian’s production values are up to their usual high standards. Producer Paul Baxter and engineer James Waterhouse have recorded the performances very successfully. One can hear lots of detail and the full ensemble is also reported very well. As I mentioned earlier, the resonant acoustic of All Hallows’ has been harnessed to good effect ... Michael Emery’s notes are excellent: they’re full of valuable information and make the listener keen to hear the music about which he’s writing. This is a terriffic disc"


read the full review here

"Opening this superb collection of Anglican anthems with Edward Bairstow’s finely detailed orchestral arrangement of his Blessed city, heavenly Salem proves a stroke of programming genius. The piece, transformed here into a miniature music drama filled with bold imagery, is almost unrecognisable from the original version for choir and organ. Conductor Benjamin Nicholas ensures that his Merton College choristers, supported by sumptuous playing from Britten Sinfonia, connect with the sacred words of nine diverse works, collectively conveying a deep understanding of, and perhaps even genuine belief in, what they’re singing about. Choir and orchestra are on majestic form in Howells’s scintillating Behold, O God, our defender, written for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and have the measure of Finzi’s Lo, the full final sacrifice, remarkable in its lyrical intensity"


"The performances made the hairs on my arms rise; the excitement in the crescendos, the moving, controlled singing in the quiet moments, and the acoustics of All Hallows’, Gospel Oak, London, were part of an overall excellent listening experience. The composers and arrangers knew exactly what they were doing ... Full marks for choosing some of the finest repertoire from the wealth of sacred works written for enthronements, coronations, and the nation’s grandest choral festivals from the first half of the twentieth century; certainly a bonus ... The quality of the recording is marvellous; the choir dazzles with stupendous singing, and the large forces of the Britten Sinfonia are outstanding ... If, like me, you are a fan of the English choral tradition, then this disc will be a more than enjoyable addition to your collection for its fine exquisite singing, terrific polished accompaniments, and all-around good feeling"


"You can’t deny the fervour of the Choir of Merton College, Oxford and their director Benjamin Nichols, or the extra splendour radiating from the musicians of Britten Sinfonia. As long as the recording lasted, all was right with the world"

★ ★ ★ ★


"this disc is absolutely inspiring, edifying and entrancing ... Benjamin Nicholas' conducting is nothing short of full-blooded, and his singers and players respond with eloquent beauty that makes the music sound not only powerful but joyously uplifting. This is a truly memorable issue that gave me so much courage to believe that there is still reason to cherish life despite its trials and tribulations. Sound and booklet notes are superb. Do treat yourself to a special experience"


"This album celebrates a selection of choral anthems written for church or cathedral where an orchestra replaces what would normally be an organ accompaniment ... Conductor Benjamin Nicholas shapes Ecce sacerdos magnus with pleasing cogency, Elgar's orchestra a stirringly supportive presencein crescendos ... 'The Spirit of the Lord' (from The Apostles) is even better, Merton College Choir and the Britten Sinfonia working hand in glove to summon the glowing warmth and spiritual fervour of Elgar's writing ... Michael Emery's booklet essay usefully clarifies the context in which these anthems were created, and should definitely be read before listening to the music"


Release Date: 23 June 2023
Catalogue No: DCD34291
Total playing time: 55:08

Recorded on 1-2 July 2022 in All Hallows’, Gospel Oak
Producer: Paul Baxter
Engineer: James Waterhouse
24-bit digital editing: Jack Davis
24-bit digital mastering: Paul Baxter

Design: John Christ
Booklet editor: Henry Howard
Cover image: Jan Sitek, Falling Sands Viaduct, Severn Valley Railway, etsy.com/uk/shop/JanSitekIllustration
Session photography: foxbrush.co.uk

Delphian Records Ltd – Edinburgh – UK


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George Dyson:Evening Service in D - Magnificat

Anthems on a grand scale with the choir of Merton College, Oxford

In a special feature in Gramophone Magazine, Andrew Mellor offers his recording session report from Merton College, Oxford's first collaboration with Britten Sinfonia ...

The Choir of Merton College Oxford in recording sessions image foxbrush.co.uk

On November 8, 1655, a ‘solemn assembly of sons of ministers’, many of them destitute offspring of clergymen suffering under Cromwell’s regime, gathered at a service for their benefit at the old St Paul’s Cathedral in London. It was the start of what was to become known as the Festival of the Sons of the Clergy, which a 1956 edition of The Musical Times cites as ‘probably the origin of all music festivals, and in particular of those oratorio festivals which formed such important landmarks in Victorian music-making’.

Not much is known about the music at that 1655 service, though in 1789 Charles Burney noted that in the late 1690s the annual event included Purcell’s Te Deum and Jubilate in D. In musical terms, the catalyst appears to have been the inauguration of Wren’s new St Paul’s Cathedral in 1697, at which point the festival’s triumphant ‘return’ to its new home came with a determination to fill that church with sound. The festival got bigger, and it most certainly got louder.

A tradition soon emerged which saw the choir of St Paul’s joined by two other cathedral choirs from elsewhere in England, making for a supersize vocal ensemble (the tradition continues today).

"‘It was a revelation for members of the choir, hearing all these works with orchestral colours"

In the 20th century, the temptation to throw yet more musical resources at the festival – in effect, little more than a colossal church service with a fundraising dinner appended – proved too strong to resist. Orchestras began to appear, for which existing works were orchestrated and bespoke ones were written. The centrepiece of a new album from the choir of Merton College, Oxford, and the Britten Sinfonia is Dyson’s well-known Evening Service in D of 1907, dressed in the orchestral garb bestowed upon it by St Paul’s sub-organist Douglas Hopkins for the 1935 festival.....

Andrew Mellor

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Gramophone.


Dyson's Magnificat from his Evening Service in D, performed by the combined forces of Merton College Choir & Britten Sinfonia

Additional interview


Benjamin Nicholas on Orchestral Anthems

Benjamin talks to Presto Classical's David Smith about how this mammoth project came about ...

Album Booklet

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