The Complete Psalms of David Volume 9: Psalms 119-132
Choir of Salisbury Cathedral/David Halls John Challenger (organ)
English texts included
rec. 9, 10, 12 February 2015, Salisbury Cathedral PRIORY PRCD1150 [77:37]
Volume 10: Psalms 133-150
Choir of Chichester Cathedral/Charles Harrison Timothy Ravalde (organ)
English texts included
rec. 8, 11, 12 May 2015, Chichester Cathedral PRIORY PRCD1155 [74:12]
To quote from Haydn’s Creation: ‘Achieved is the glorious work’. With this pair of discs Priory Records complete their second recorded survey of the Psalms of David in which they’ve tried, as much as possible, to use chants that have hitherto not been recorded. For the penultimate instalment they have returned to Salisbury Cathedral where Vol. 2 (Psalms 20-36) was recorded. The final volume in the series is entrusted to the Choir of Chichester Cathedral who appear in the series for the first time.
David Halls and his Salisbury choir face the considerable challenge of Psalm 119, all 176 verses of it. If memory serves me correctly that distinction went to John Sanders and the Gloucester Cathedral choir the first time Priory recorded the complete psalms. So lengthy is Psalm 119 that consecutive sections of it are sung or recited over three days, beginning on the evening of Day 24 and ending on the evening of Day 26. Here David Halls very sensibly uses a variety of chants in order to sustain interest. By the time verse 176 is reached no fewer than 22 separate chants have been heard – and no chant is heard more than once. Incidentally, verses 121 to 128 are sung to a chant by June Nixon who is, to the best of my recollection, the first and only female composer whose music has featured in this series.
Psalm 119 takes 43 minutes to sing in its entirety here. I take off my hat to David Halls because his changes of chant are shrewdly and understandingly effected – usually about 8 verses are sung to one chant before there’s a change - and the selected chants fit the verses to which they have been allocated very well. So, when the mood or argument of the psalm changes Halls finds the right music to reflect the change of emphasis. Along the way it’s interesting to hear a chant by Gerald Finzi (verses 81-88), who is not a composer whose name would normally be associated with psalmody. The chant by June Nixon, who I have already mentioned, is a good one and suits the verses for which it has been selected (121-128). Halls himself contributes three different chants, all of which are effective. You wouldn’t hear all 176 verses sung together in a liturgical context but a CD offers that opportunity for those who wish to take it. If you do, you won’t be bored.
The remaining psalms are all significantly shorter. I like David Halls’ chant for Psalm 121; it’s expressive and fits the words well. Richard Seal’s chant for Psalm 122 is declaimed confidently here; musically it’s interesting, too. The David Halls chant for Psalm 123 is described as “from Richard Strauss”. I have no idea on what theme by the composer Halls has based his chant and it would have been interesting to know. It’s good to find that the collection also includes chants by two very senior and distinguished figures: John Joubert (Psalm 126) and Francis Jackson (Psalm130). Jackson, the former Master of Music at York Minster, will be 99 years old this year.
Throughout this disc the Salisbury choir chants the psalms very well. They are well directed by David Halls who maintains a good musical flow that conveys the sense of the words very effectively. John Challenger’s organ accompaniments are excellent, especially in the discreet but very understanding way that he illustrates the words.
One disappointment, though, is the lack of any significant notes about what we are hearing, As is customary, there is a note about the Psalms themselves by a member of the cathedral clergy, in this case the Precentor of Salisbury Cathedral. His note, however, is one of the shortest – if not the shortest – in the series so far. More seriously, there is not a word about the music. The earliest volumes included a few comments about some of the composers but this seems to have fallen by the wayside as the series has evolved. It might have been interesting to know just a little more about the chant that is “after Richard Strauss”. Even more to the point, though, it’s a shame that any local connections have not been pointed out. There are, for instance, three chants by Sir Walter Alcock but there’s no mention of the fact that he was Organist of Salisbury Cathedral from 1916 to 1947, nor that his predecessor (1883-1916) was Charles South, who also contributes three chants to this collection.
At least the introductory note to Volume 10, by the Precentor of Chichester Cathedral, has a little more to say about the psalms in this final volume though even here there is nothing about the music or any of the composers who provided it. For instance, it might have been worth mentioning that Gloucester-born John Stafford-Smith, whose chant is used for verses 15-21 of Psalm 136, wrote the tune that was subsequently used for The Star-Spangled Banner.
Once again we find a perceptive choice of chants; it seemed to me that all the music fitted well the lines for which it had been chosen. So, for instance, Peter Hurford’s chant, forthrightly delivered, suits the sentiments of the short Psalm 134. The chant by Stanley Alcock (no relation to Sir Walter, so far as I know) conveys the sadness of the Babylonian Captivity in Psalm 137 and the Chichester choir chants this psalm with no little feeling.
There’s another Gerald Finzi chant in this collection, this time for Psalm 138. I was completely unaware until receiving these discs that Finzi had written any psalm chants. It’s interesting to hear them but you may not be surprised to learn that they betray no evidence of Finzi’s habitual style. Martin Singleton is someone about whom nothing seems to be known other than that he is a twentieth-century composer. He contributes a chant in C minor which fits very well indeed to Psalm 140, an oppressive, troubled psalm. Two chants are used for Psalm 141 and the one by Sir Thomas Armstrong (verses 7-11) is by some distance the more interesting of the two. A chant by Philip Marshall, Master of Music at Lincoln Cathedral between 1966 and 1986 is used for Psalm 143. It’s a fine chant and its conjunction with the words of that psalm is an eloquent combination.
Fittingly, the Chichester Organist and his assistant contribute settings near the end. Charles Harrison’s chant for Psalm 148 is given suitably dramatic treatment. Then the disc and Priory’s series is brought to a celebratory end by Timothy Ravalde’s most interesting Set of Singles in D major to which Psalm 150 is chanted. Ravalde’s chant is most interesting: it’s solidly rooted in and fully respectful of the Anglican tradition yet it moves that tradition on a bit.
Perhaps that’s the most fitting way to conclude this series in which Priory Records have given us an enriching overview of the Anglican tradition of psalmody. Along the way we’ve heard chants by some shadowy figures from centuries past whose names are all but forgotten in the 21st century. We’ve also heard chants by a number of the most significant figures in English liturgical music over that last 150 years or so but it seems to me that some of the most interesting and stimulating of the psalm chants have been those penned in the last fifty years or so. Not only are these a bit more harmonically enterprising but, more importantly, they demonstrate that there are musicians ready and willing to continue and refresh the tradition.
The recorded sound for both of these present discs is very good, as has been the case throughout the series. I had the impression that the Chichester choir was recorded a little less closely that their Salisbury colleagues. I had to turn up the volume a couple of notches for their disc but, that adjustment made, the sound is fine. As he has done throughout the series Neil Collier has achieved on both discs a good balance between the organ and the choir. Furthermore, the clarity with which the choirs and the words they are delivering has been a hallmark of the series.
It has been a rewarding experience to follow this series from beginning to end over the last four years. The standard of singing has been uniformly high and the psalms have been interpreted with commitment, intelligence and understanding by all the Directors of Music and Organists who have taken part. The series offers further proof, if it were needed, that the choral tradition in English cathedrals is in robust health – though we must never be complacent about that.
The series will be self-recommending to all those who love the English choral tradition and the unique place within it of psalm chanting. These last two volumes continue the high standard of the series and bring it to a fine conclusion.
Track listing Volume 9 Sir Joseph BARNBY (1838-1896); Sir John STAINER (1840-1901); Ambrose Probert PORTER (1885-1970); David HALLS (b 1963) Psalm 119 vv1-32 [7:49] Sir Frederick BRIDGE (1844-1924); George GARRETT (1834-1897); David HALLS; George GUEST (1925-2002); Sir Walter ALCOCK (1861-1947) Psalm 119 vv33-72 [9:30] John WEST (1863-1929); Gerald FINZI (1901-1956); Sir John STAINER; Jason SMART (b 1949) Psalm 119 vv73-104 [8:05] Sir Frederick BRIDGE; Henry LEY (1887-1962); June NIXON (b 1942); David HALLS; Sir Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946) Psalm 119 vv105-144 [10:00] Charles SOUTH (1850-1916); Samuel WESLEY (1766-1837); Sir John GOSS (1800-1880); Donald SWEENEY (1935-2013) Psalm 119 vv144-end (v176) [7:48] Thomas EBDON (1783-1811) Psalm 120 [2:08] David HALLS Psalm 121 [2:40] Richard SEAL (b 1935) Psalm 122 [2:43] David HALLS Psalm 123 [1:54] Charles SOUTH Psalm 124 [2:22] Charles SOUTH Psalm 125 [2:13] John JOUBERT (b. 1927) Psalm 126 [2:14] James TURLE (1802-1882) Psalm 127 [2:18] Sir George ELVEY (1816-1893) Psalm 128 [2:16] Sir Joseph BARNBY Psalm 129 [2:34] Francis JACKSON (b 1917) Psalm 130 [2:38] Sir Walter ALCOCK Psalm 131 [1:46] Sir Walter ALCOCK Psalm 132 [5:25] Volume 10 Richard TURLE (19c) Psalm 133 [1:40] Peter HURFORD (b 1930) Psalm 134 [1:19] Harvey GRACE (1874-1944); Michael OVERBURY (b 1953); John STAFFORD-SMITH (1750-1836) Psalm 135 [5:52] Charles LLOYD (1849-1919) Psalm 136 [6:12] Stanley ALCOCK (1871-1964) Psalm 137 [3:17] Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Psalm 138 [3:08] Barry ROSE (b 1934); Francis GLADSTONE (1845-1928) Psalm 139 [7:12] Martin SINGLETON (20c) Psalm 140 [4:01] Philip GOODENOUGH (1776-1826); Sir Thomas ARMSTRONG (1898-1994 Psalm 141 [3:38] Philip ARMES (1836-1908) Psalm 142 [3:05] Philip MARSHALL (1921-2005) Psalm 143 [4:57] Charles MACPHERSON (1870-1927); Michael OVERBURY Psalm 144 [5:14] Charles HYLTON STEWART (1884-1932) Psalm 145 [5:58] Alan MELLORS (b 1945) Psalm 146 [3:35] Percy WHITLOCK (1903-1946) Psalm 147 [5:36] Charles HARRISON (b 1974) Psalm 148 [3:39] Percy WHITLOCK Psalm 149 [2:26] Timothy RAVALDE (b 1988) Psalm 150 [2:11]