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Psalms for the Spirit
George Mursell GARRETT (1834-1897)
Psalm 126 [2:03]
John GOSS (1800-1880)
Psalm 127 [2:15]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
O, pray for the peace of Jerusalem - from Psalm 122 [7:17]; Psalm 121 [2:33]
Henry SMART (1813-1879)
Psalm 65 [4:14]
William MATHIAS (1934-1992)
Let the people praise thee, O Godfrom Psalm 67 [5:30]
Thomas ATTWOOD (1765-1838)
Psalm 41 [3:57]
George Mursell GARRETT
Psalm 93 [2:14]
William CROFT (1678-1727)
Burial Sentences [2:59]
Noel EDISON (b. 1959)
Psalm 137 [3:14]
Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946)
Psalm 114 [2:16]
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955)
My Prayer – from Psalm 102 [7:19]
Matthew LARKIN (b. 1963)
Psalm 111 [3:14]
Samuel WESLEY (1766-1837)
Psalm 42 [4:34]
Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
I was glad – from Psalm 122 [6:25]
Choir of St. John’s, Elora/Matthew Larkin (organ)/Noel Edison
rec. St, John’s Church, Elora, Ontario, Canada, 27-30 January 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.557781 [60:31]

In 1999 these same forces – but with a different organist – made a CD for Naxos entitled Psalms for the Soul (8.554823). It was my purchase of that disc that alerted me to the fine choral work being undertaken in Elora by Noel Edison. Further discs that he’s made, conducting both this choir and the Elora Festival Singers, have reinforced that initial favourable impression.

This CD is a follow-up to Psalms for the Soul and follows the same format in that the programme consists of several psalms sung to Anglican chant as well as a number of anthems that take one of the psalms for their text. I’m glad to note the inclusion of several fine chants from the Victorian heyday of Anglican chant, with Garrett, Goss, Smart and others represented to excellent effect.

But that tradition was still alive and well – indeed, flourishing – in the twentieth century and the chants to Psalms 121 (Howells), 137 (Noel Edison himself) and 111 (Matthew Larkin) are all fully respectful of the tradition yet contrive to speak with a suitably contemporary voice. I commend in particular Edison’s plangent chant, which is well suited to the sorrowful mood of Psalm 137 (‘By the waters of Babylon’).  In both these modern chants and in the older chant settings the pointing and phrasing of the chants sounded absolutely faithful to the style and idiom. The words are clear and the harmonies well balanced. My only very slight regret is that I’d have liked to hear Matthew Larkin, an admirable organist throughout the programme, occasionally offer just a bit of decoration or illustration to some psalm verses. On one occasion he does let himself go, in the last two verses of the elaborate Bairstow chant: at the words ‘Tremble thou earth at the presence of the Lord’ Larkin makes the organ thunder beneath the singers, without overwhelming them, and the effect is thrilling.

Herbert Howells is represented by two different types of response to the Psalms. His double chant for Psalm 121 is quite lovely. I don’t know when this was written but the words evidently meant quite a lot to Howells for he included a setting of the same text in the wonderful Requiem that he composed in the 1930s but suppressed for many years. And his engagement with this psalm reached its apogee in his supreme masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi (1938), in the fourth movement of which the words of that psalm are combined with the Sanctus from the Mass in an elaborate setting. The other Howells selection, O, pray for the peace of Jerusalem, is the first of five anthems In Time of War. These anthems, of which Like as the Hart is another, were all composed in January 1941, each in a single day. The present piece is a heartfelt, serene creation and it’s beautifully performed here.

Complete contrast comes in the form of Mathias’s exuberant and rhythmically perky Let the people praise thee, O God, which was written in 1981 for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. This Elora performance is delightfully lively, with Matthew Larkin making an important contribution from the organ loft. He’s also prominent in Parry’s majestic I was glad, not least through a sonorous rendition of the introduction. Noel Edison leads a performance in which the singing is rather more restrained – though still full-toned – than I’ve sometimes heard on disc. He’s attentive to the need to provide light and shade in this work and this is definitely not a “can belto” performance of the type one sometimes hears. I thought it was refreshing though I suspect that the full choir is used in the short semi-chorus section at ‘O, pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ and at this point I’d have liked the contrast that a smaller group provides.

I must also mention Bob Chilcott’s My Prayer, which takes just a solitary verse – the first one – from Psalm 102. It’s more an exploration of choral textures than anything else with plaintive soprano solo lines rising out of the body of choral sound from time to time. As Keith Anderson says in his excellent liner-note, this effective piece “is a moving petition, an intense meditation and effective contrast to the more traditional chant here recorded.”

In summary, this is a fine disc. The singing is excellent throughout. Tuning and balance leave nothing to be desired and though Naxos provide the English texts the choir’s diction is so good that one scarcely needs to refer to the booklet. One small thing puzzles me: the booklet gives information about the Elora Festival Singers but I suspect this is a mistake since I understand this to be a completely separate choir to the one heard to such excellent effect on this CD, though Noel Edison conducts both. The performances are captured in truthful, clear yet atmospheric sound. This disc should be snapped up eagerly by lovers of the music of the English Church.

John Quinn



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