The Complete Psalms of David - Volume 8: Psalms 104-118
Full track listings at the foot of this review
Choir of Worcester Cathedral/Peter Nardone
Christopher Allsop (organ)
English texts included
rec. 14-16 October 2014, Worcester Cathedral PRIORY PRCD1149
For Volume 8 of Priory’s second series of recordings of the complete Psalms of David we’re on the banks of the River Severn, at Worcester Cathedral. Peter Nardone’s selection of Psalms covers the period from the morning of Day 21 to the morning of Day 24.
There are some rather dramatic psalms in this particular sequence and, where appropriate, they receive a full-blooded treatment from the Worcester choir. The choir sings well, though there is something of an edge to the tone of the trebles – one or two strong voices, perhaps – when the singing is at full volume. This edge is not inappropriate for some of the more vivid passages but some listeners may be discomfited by it; I found my ears soon adjusted.
Some of these psalms are quite lengthy and one thing that I appreciated about these performances is that Peter Nardone judges pretty unerringly not just what sort of chant to use for various portions of texts but also – and crucially – exactly at what point to effect the changes. Thus, for example, Psalm 106 is sung to three chants by Herbert Howells, all of them good ones. The first twelve verses are sung to a chant in the unusual key of C-sharp minor. There’s a change to A minor at verse 13 and that seems to me to be exactly the right time to switch to the minor as the psalmist tells us “But within a while they [the Israelites] forgat his works.” Not only is a minor key appropriate here but the chant itself seems adroitly selected for the words. Not until verse 43, almost at the end of the psalm, is a reversion to the major appropriate and then Nardone selects another interesting Howells chant, this time in A major.
Something similar happens in Psalm 107 for which all the chants are supplied by Dr Robert Ashfield. This time no less than four chants are used and at each change one feels Nardone’s judgement is impeccable. It’s by no means unusual to switch chants during a psalm but usually the switch, once effected, holds good for quite a few verses. In Psalm 107, however, Mr Nardone goes a bit further. He switches between the Ashfield chants quite frequently – we’ve heard three of them by the end of verse 7 – yet the changes are as seamless as they are appropriate.
The treatment of Psalm 105 suits the dramatic nature of the words. In particular, the section from verse 26 to verse 35 tells of the plagues visited on Egypt – the same story that Handel related so vividly in Israel in Egypt. The choir really gets hold of the narrative here and sings it with no little intensity – and hereabouts there’s also a particularly exciting contribution from Christopher Allsop at the organ. Then the deliverance of the Israelites is recounted in some tranquillity from verse 36 onwards. There’s absolutely nothing routine about this psalm chanting but neither is it excessive.
Peter Nardone selects a few very traditional chants from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and he’s right to do so since Priory’s series illustrates the whole heritage of Anglican psalmody. However, he also includes a good leavening of more recent chants with their more resourceful harmonies. Among these I would single out Harry Grindle’s chant which is used for Psalm 113 and Conrad Eden’s chant for Psalm 114 – though I do wonder how many psalms the Eden chant would suit.
So far as I can tell there aren’t too many chants by composers who have also been Organists of Worcester Cathedral or otherwise connected to it – one or two of the early volumes in this series included at least a little information about some of the composers but, frustratingly, that seems to have petered out in the more recent volumes. However, Peter Nardone includes a chant by his immediate predecessor, Adrian Lucas (Psalm 109); that’s an expressive, minor-key chant, well suited to the verses of the psalm to which it is sung. Nardone himself also contributes a couple of effective chants (Psalms 110 and 113).
This particular collection includes the shortest psalm in the Psalter, namely Psalm 117. George Guest’s chant covers a mere two verses and the doxology. The next release in this series will include the longest of all the psalms, Psalm 119; I wonder which cathedral choir will have the task of taking us through that psalm and how many chants they will employ along the way.
This Worcester collection includes several psalms that tell of tribulation. However, it ends on a confident note with Psalm 118. The two selected chants, by Robert Nares and Haldane Stewart, are delivered robustly by Peter Nardone’s choir, bringing to a rousing conclusion their contribution to Priory’s series.
There is some vivid psalm chanting on this disc; it’s an approach that is suitable for several of the psalms in question. But the Worcester singers are equally capable of refinement and delicacy. Christopher Allsop accompanies them imaginatively. His playing is quite powerful on several occasions – and rightly so – but never does the organ overpower the singers and elsewhere Allsop plays with considerable finesse. Furthermore he shows in the colourings and registrations that he employs a fine understanding of the texts he is illustrating.
The Priory recording is very good; choir and organ are well balanced. This is an excellent addition to Priory’s series.
Thomas ATTWOOD (1765-1838), F DEFFELL (1865- ?) from CHERUBINI, Theo SAUNDERS (b. 1957), Peter MOORSE (b. 1930) Psalm 105 [10:19]
Herbert Norman HOWELLS (1892-1983) (three chants) Psalm 106 [12:05]
Robert James ASHFIELD (1911-2006) (four chants) Psalm 107 [10:53]
Martin HOW (b. 1931) Psalm 108 [3:59]
Adrian LUCAS (b. 1965), Peter Kirk (b. 1950) Psalm 109 [9:15]
Peter NARDONE (b. 1965) Psalm 110 [2:38]
James TURLE (1802-1882) Psalm 111 [3:20]
William HAYES (1707-1777) Psalm 112 [3:15]
William ‘Harry’ GRINDLE (1935-2013), Peter NARDONE Psalm 113 [2:42]
Conrad EDEN (1905-1994) Psalm 114 [2:29]
Robin DOVETON (b. 1946) Psalm 115 [4:57]
Charles MACPHERSON (1870-1927) Psalm 116 [5:01]
George GUEST (1924-2002) Psalm 117 [1:04]
James NARES (1715-1783), Haldane STEWART (1868-1942) Psalm 118 [6:40]