Psalms for the Soul (Michael Bloss/ Noel Edison/ St. John's Choir/ Elora) (Naxos: 8.554823)
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Psalms for the Soul
The Book of Psalms has been described by one modern authority as "the most precious heritage which the Christians received from the Jews." Filled with vivid poetic imagery these texts have provided composers with inspiration over the centuries. This is only to be expected since they were written with the idea of musical accompaniment in mind from the start. One has only to call to mind the lines from Psalms CXLIX and CL, \O sing unto the lord a new song, Praise him in the sound of the trumpet, praise him upon the strings and pipe, or Sing praises unto him with timbrel and harp", to realise that these are words to be sung. From the early years of the Christian church the singing of psalms was an important part of the services of worship. This was just as true after the Reformation within the Anglican tradition, to which the music on this CD belongs. Psalms were particularly prominent in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer where they were appointed to be read or sung in regular cycles. These services are no longer as conspicuous as they once were and we have lost that continual exposure which allowed phrases from the psalms to enter our common store of imagery - "out of the mouth of babes and sucklings",or the strikingly resonant "valley of the shadow of death."
Three of the psalms on this recording are treated by their composers - Herbert Sumsion, Lennox Berkeley, and Herbert Howells - as full scale anthems. The imagery of the text that Sumsion chooses, "They that go down to the sea in ships", is deftly reflected in musical imitation or word painting. The melodic lines of the choir climb upwards to heaven and sink downwards to the deep, and later they stagger, if not exactly like drunken men, then at least like mildly inebriated ones. The organ meanwhile keeps up a constant, watery, lapping motion.
In choosing the well-loved Psalm XXIII as his text Lennox Berkeley was pitting himself against strong competition. The resulting anthem has a quiet intensity that completely confirms one writer's description of Berkeley's music - "broadly melodious, richly harmonious and translucidly polyphonic." One might add that richly harmonious in this context means a gentle spikiness that gives the piece a contemporary feel without disturbing the overall calm that is an essential part of its message. Particularly effective is the return of the opening words of the psalm with the soprano line now harmonised for full choir, providing a sense of musical and spiritual growth for the listener.
The anthem composer has a great deal of freedom in the way he treats a text. In his well-known Like as the Hart, for example, Herbert Howells uses only the first three verses of Psalm XLII and recapitulates verses 1 and 2 after "My tears have been my food day and night...." The text speaks throughout these verses in the first person, but Howells differentiates the personal observations of the writer - "Like as the Hart... My tears..." - from the questioning cries of the whole congregation - "When shall 1 come to appear before God?" and "Where, where is now thy God?" The latter are given in full harmony by the whole choir, the more personal thoughts by single sections of the choir or by two sections in Howells' typically flexible and, in this context, rather mournful counterpoint.
The psalms cover a wide variety of types - hymns or songs of praise, psalms of thanksgiving, personal laments, laments of a community or nation, to name a few. These are poetic texts but, true to their Hebrew origins, they have neither meter nor rhyme. They do, however, have a very obvious parallel structure within verses. Take for example Psalm CXXI: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills - 0, whence cometh my help?" Or the opening of the lament that is Psalm CXXX: "Out of the deep have 1 called unto thee O Lord - Lord hear my prayer." The very flexible nature of the psalm texts is both part of their beauty and at the same time a problem when it comes to providing musical settings. In the medieval church the psalm verses were sung to a musical formula - an opening little flourish, a long recitation capable of accommodating any number of words on a single note and then a closing flourish. Anglican chant is fundamentally an elaboration of this method in four-part harmony. It is not surprising that almost all the chant composers on this recording have had a close relationship with the Anglican church, either in its cathedral tradition or in one of the Oxford and Cambridge college chapels.
Henry Lawes, the earliest composer recorded here, was a Gentleman of Charles I's Chapel Royal and the recipient of a sonnet from Milton (with some poetic exaggeration):Harry, whose tuneful and well-measured songFirst taught our English music how to spanWords with just note and accent...
His robust chant is used for the words of Psalm VIII. The early nineteenth century is represented by a single chant, the one by Thomas Atwood Walmisley that is used to accompany the joyful Psalm CXLVIII. Walmisley, who was born in 1814 achieved the singular distinction of simultaneously holding appointments as organist at three Cambridge colleges as well as the University Church, and perhaps even more remarkable of being appointed Professor of Music while still an undergraduate.
In the nineteenth century England was described (not by an Englishman, it should be said) as the "land without music." Whether or not this was entirely justified the tide began to turn with the appearance of those two larger-than-life figures Parry and Stanford, who in later years commanded the heights of musical education in England, Parry as professor at Oxford and Stanford holding the same position at Cambridge. They each contribute a single chant; Parry, the gentle accompaniment to Psalm LXXXIV, and Stanford, music for that quintessential psalm of praise, Psalm CL, O praise God in his holiness.
Charles Hylton Stewart was in succession organist of Rochester Cathedral, Chester Cathedral and St Georges's Chapel, Windsor, and as one of the editors of the Oxford Psalter had a great influence on the way in which the psalms were performed in cathedrals and churches. He had a particular knack for writing subtle, understated chants, as is demonstrated by the two examples on this recording. Ivor Atkins, organist of Worcester Cathedral for more than fifty years, supplies a fine traditional chant for Psalm CXLIX. David Willcocks, his successor at Worcester, but better known for his work at King's College, Cambridge, accompanies the humble sentiments of Psalm CXXXI - "I am not high minded: I have no proud looks" - with gently modern harmonies, while Noel Edison shows his deep understanding of the psalm tradition with an elegant chant for Psalm CXXI.
In addition to the psalm texts, this recording presents a setting of the Reproaches. The central words are those of the crucified Christ to his ungrateful people and form part of the Roman Catholic Good Friday liturgy, where they appear during the Veneration of the Cross. Although not part of the original Book of Common Prayer, this liturgy has been adapted for Anglican use in a number of modern books for a similar Good Friday ceremony. Old Testament texts are interspersed with the so-called Trisagion - "Holy God, Holy and strong, Holy and immortal, have mercy upon us and the words O my people. What have I done to you. How have I offended you? Answer me!" John Sanders's setting, written when he was organist of Gloucester Cathedral, provides