Having passed the halfway mark in their project to record the 150 psalms in The Psalter, Priory now advance to Volume 6. It’s a mild surprise to find that the project hasn’t moved on to another cathedral. Instead, some months after recording Psalms 68-77, Aric Prentice and his choir also set down the next eleven psalms for Priory, this time with Charles Harrison at the organ.
These psalms take us from the evening of Day 15 to the morning of Day 17. Only one psalm is specified for the evening of Day 15 and no wonder: Psalm 78 is a very long psalm indeed, consisting of no fewer than 73 verses. Sensibly Aric Prentice uses a variety of chants, six in all. In fact he uses some chants more than once and during the singing of this psalm there are eleven changes of chant. Not only is this very pragmatic but it seems to me also that the various alterations of chant suit the several changes of tack in the words. It’s a dramatic psalm – listeners will recognise the core of the story which is told at much greater length in Handel’s Israel in Egypt
. I liked the fittingly robust way that Prentice’s choir delivers the music. Incidentally, one of the chosen chants is a recently published example by Herbert Howells. It’s rather unusual but it’s effective, as are the chants by Kenneth Beard and Andrew Reid.
Psalm 79 strikes a very different tone and the Lincoln choir sings it expressively. The chant by Edward Dearle suits the text well. For Psalm 82 a chant by Philip Marshall is used. He was Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lincoln between 1966 and 1986. His contribution is confident and forthright and the Lincoln choir really ‘goes for it’. Sir William Harris’s chant to which Psalm 86 is sung is reassuring and initially it’s sung here with quiet feeling though the singing is appropriately stronger in some of the later verses. Psalm 87 is sung to music by Craig Lang which is sufficiently interesting to make me regret it was used for a psalm that is only seven verses long.
This sequence began with Psalm 78, a dramatic narrative psalm, but it ends with Psalm 88, which is a subdued psalm of penitence. Aric Prentice chooses a melancholy, expressive chant by Clifford Hewis who was the cathedral’s Assistant Organist for an astonishingly long period (1936-1975). It’s very apt music for the words and the Lincoln choir sings it very well indeed.
The Lincoln Cathedral choir made a very favourable impression in Volume 5 of this series (review
) and that impression is sustained here. Prentice gets his singers to deliver the psalms clearly and convincingly. Dynamics are intelligently used and Prentice is not afraid to incorporate occasional passages of unaccompanied singing for heightened effect. Inevitably, however, most of the singing is accompanied by Charles Harrison, the cathedral’s Assistant Director of Music. I was very taken with the contribution of Colin Walsh to Volume 5 and Harrison is no less imaginative in the way he accompanies the choir. All in all, this is a very successful presentation of these psalms.
Lincoln Cathedral has been the seat of the Bishops of Lincoln for centuries. By contrast, Wakefield Cathedral attained that status as ‘recently’ as 1888 when the Diocese of Wakefield was established. Prior to that the church was the parish church of Wakefield. When the sessions for Volume 7 of this Priory series took place the cathedral was still the seat of the Wakefield diocese but by the time the disc was issued that had changed. The diocese was dissolved in 2014 and became part of the new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. This new diocese has three co-cathedrals in Bradford, Ripon and Wakefield.
Lincoln pass the baton to their Wakefield colleagues who take us from the evening of Day 17 to the evening of Day 20. As at Lincoln the Wakefield Cathedral choir has a combination of boys and girls singing the treble line. Although I don’t think the proportion of girls' voices is significantly greater I was slightly more conscious of their timbre when listening to this disc than had been the case at Lincoln. That’s not an implicit criticism of either choir but a simple statement of fact: both choirs make a very fine sound. In the booklet note Canon John Lawson of Wakefield Cathedral expresses the hope that we’ll enjoy hearing these psalms “where possible with a Yorkshire, or at least a Northern, touch.” As a Yorkshireman myself I have to say that I couldn’t detect that the choir sings with a Yorkshire accent – that would have been fanciful to expect – but what I do hear, with great pleasure, is a typically Northern robustness as the choir goes about its business. Maybe this is accentuated because many of the psalms allotted to them are confident and forthright in nature. Even so, this is a choir that has been trained to deliver the psalms in a stirring fashion.
Yorkshire is renowned for its cricket. Fittingly, perhaps, the Wakefield innings begins with a strong and extended ‘opening partnership’ in the shape of Psalm 89 which is 50 verses long. Thomas Moore breaks up the psalm very sensibly, deploying four different chants, though the fourth makes but a fleeting appearance at the end. Furthermore, he shifts between the chants at exactly the right moments. The singing is often dramatic and forthright and from the organ loft Simon Earl contributes some very colourful touches.
The chant by Philip Hayes to which most of Psalm 90 is sung is in the unusual key of G sharp minor. Towards the end a switch is made to a much more recent major-key chant by Geoffrey Barber. This combination of old and new works very well. Another recent chant is supplied by Philip Tordoff. It suits Psalm 91 well. Sir Walter Parratt’s chant is used to proclaim Psalm 92 very confidently; here once again, both the singing and the organ accompaniment are vivid. Psalm 93 is short and robust in its sentiments. I’m sorry that it extends only to six verses because this means we don’t hear much of the chant by Humphrey Clucas. Parratt supplies the chant for a second psalm: Psalm 96. This is memorable for a rather quirky and unexpected set of descending harmonies in the alto line.
From memory the notes to most if not all the preceding volumes have given a little bit of information about a few of the composers' chants, usually those with a connection to the cathedral in question. Disappointingly, that’s completely absent here but at least the previous Organists of the cathedral are named – there have been only five, including the present incumbent – so it’s possible to do a bit of deduction. Jonathan Bielby was the fourth Organist of Wakefield Cathedral (1970-2010) and the immediate predecessor of Thomas Moore. I like the imaginative harmonies of his chant which is used for the short Psalm 100. So far as I know Sir George Dyson had no Wakefield connections but he was born and bred in Yorkshire so it’s good to see him represented here, especially by a rather beautiful chant which fits the reflective Psalm 101 like a glove.
Psalm 102 might be said to have a Three Choirs Festival link here for the chants are by Herbert Sumsion, the long-serving Organist of Gloucester Cathedral, and by George Sinclair, who held the same post at Hereford Cathedral and who is best remembered today as ‘G.R.S.’ of Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations
. Remembering Elgar’s robust portrayal of his friend it’s perhaps appropriate that Sinclair’s chant is used for the more forthright verses of this psalm.
Newell Wallbank served as the second Organist of Wakefield Cathedral (1930-1945). His contribution to Psalm 103 is a chant that’s as sturdy as Yorkshire stone. The last psalm, Psalm 104, uses no fewer than three chants by Stanley Vann, a doughty servant of Anglican church music, not least as Master of the Music at Peterborough Cathedral (1953-1977). The psalm in question is an image-rich hymn of praise. It’s vividly put across here but though the Wakefield singers display great confidence in declaiming the psalm they also sing with sensitivity when the words demand it, especially in verses 11-23.
That mix of confidence and sensitivity applies throughout this disc. The Wakefield Cathedral choir has clearly been very well trained by Thomas Moore, not just in singing per se
but also in the art of psalm chanting. I was impressed; clearly church music is in good heart in Wakefield. Full marks to Moore for his direction of the choir and to Simon Earl for his colourful and imaginatively varied accompaniments.
Both discs have been recorded expertly by Neil Collier. The two choirs both come across very clearly while the organs in Lincoln and Wakefield make their respective presences felt without ever swamping the choirs. The recordings convey clearly but without exaggeration the important division between decani and cantores.
These are two significant additions to Priory’s important series.
The Psalms of David on MusicWeb International
Vol. 1. Psalms 1-19, Exeter Cathedral
Vol. 2. Psalms 20-36, Salisbury Cathedral
Vol. 3. Psalms 37-49, Liverpool Cathedral
Vol. 4. Psalms 50-67, Peterborough Cathedral
Vol. 5. Psalms 68-77, Lincoln Cathedral
Sir Herbert OUSELEY (1830-1903), Sir George ELVEY (1816-1893), Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983), Kenneth BEARD (1927-2010), Andrew REID (b. 1971), Psalm 78 [19:35]
Edward DEARLE (1806-1891) Psalm 79 [5:35]
Sir Joseph BARNBY (1836-1896) Psalm 80 [6:23]
Sir George ELVEY, William ELLIS (1868-1947) Psalm 81 [5:13]
J. Philip MARSHALL (1921-2005) Psalm 82 [2:48]
George TALBOT (1875-1918) Psalm 83 [5:27]
Sir Herbert BREWER (1865-1928), Psalm 84 [4:35]
Sir John STAINER (1840-1901) Psalm 85 [4:16]
Sir William HARRIS (1883-1973) Psalm 86 [5:34]
Craig LANG (1891-1971) Psalm 87 [2:32]
Clifford HEWIS (1910-1990) Psalm 88 [7:02]
Sir Percy BUCK (1871-1974), John BERTALOT (b 1913), Reginald Alwyn SURPLICE 1906-1977), Psalm 89 [11:45]
Philip HAYES (1738-1797), George BARBER (b. 1974) Psalm 90 [4:53]
Philip TORDOFF (b. 1937) Psalm 91 [4:23]
Sir Walter PARRATT (1841-1924) Psalm 92 [4:11]
Humphrey CLUCAS (b 1941) Psalm 93 [2:00]
George TALBOT (1875-1918) Psalm 94 [5:36]
Benjamin COOKE (1734-1793), Psalm 95 [3:04]
Sir Walter PARRATT Psalm 96 [3:34]
James MIDDLETON (1895-1983) Psalm 97 [3:24]
James TURLE (1802-1882) Psalm 98 [2:48]
Jonathan BATTISHILL (1738-1801), John FOSTER (1827-1915) Psalm 99 [2:50]
Jonathan BIELBY (b. 1944) Psalm 100 [1:45]
Sir George DYSON (1883-1964) Psalm 101 [2:55]
Herbert SUMSION (1899-1995), George Robertson SINCLAIR (1863-1917) Psalm 102 [7:10]
Newell WALLBANK (1875-1945), Sir Joseph BARNBY (1838-1896) Psalm 103 [5:44]
Stanley VANN (1910-2010) Psalm 104 [8:41]