Notes and Editorial Reviews
The auspicious launch of a new series of the complete Anglican psalmody.
A good few years ago Priory Records recorded a set of ten CDs which contained all 150 psalms. Each volume was allotted to a different cathedral choir – ten choirs were involved in the project – and the series is still available from Priory, either as individual volumes or as a complete set. Now Priory intend to revisit the psalter and record all the psalms again, using as much as possible, they say, chants that are hitherto unrecorded. It would appear from this first volume that the new series will follow a different scheme in that the psalms will be set out in order, as prescribed in the psalter, whereas in the previous series the psalms were
mixed up and divided according to broad themes. I think that, for reference purposes, the new approach probably makes greater sense, especially if one is to collect the whole series.
At its best there is something very satisfying about Anglican chant – I speak as a non-Anglican. The form might seem very restrictive but in fact a chant that complements the words of the psalm which is being sung can, if properly pointed by the choir, impart an extra dimension to the words. The listener’s experience can be enhanced further if the accompanying organist tastefully and imaginatively decorates the basic chords. The timeless language and often vivid imagery of the words as rendered in the King James Bible and a good, appropriate chant can form a wonderful partnership.
First into the lists for Priory this time round is Exeter Cathedral choir, directed by Andrew Millington, who has been in charge of the cathedral’s music since 1999. He contributed to the previous Priory series as well – Volume 6 – during his time as organist of Guildford Cathedral (1983-1999). For this new recording Mr Millington has chosen a diverse set of chants, including several with Exeter connections. These last include three by Millington himself and three by Reg Moore, one of Millington’s predecessors at the cathedral – he was organist and choirmaster there in the 1950s. The third Exeter composer is Michael Dawson, a former chorister, who wrote his chant at the age of just eleven!
The psalms included in this programme are those prescribed for Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer on the first three days of the month and finishing with Psalm 19, which is the first of three ordered for Morning Prayer on the fourth day. The fact that these psalms are said or sung each day, on the same day, month in month out imparts a rhythm and routine to the Anglican liturgy, one that is derived from the monastic ritual. The chants to which the psalms are sung are, in essence, a harmonised equivalent of the plainsong to which psalms were and still are recited in the monastic communities. The number of chants is legion: a note in the booklet mentions the National Archive of Anglican Chants which, apparently, comprises a collection of 14,800 different chants. The trick for a choir master is to choose chants that suit the mood of each psalm prescribed for the day. That task is made more complicated because the mood can change within a psalm – from penitence to exaltation, say – and furthermore some psalms are sufficiently long that the use of one chant throughout would induce tedium. Often, therefore, more than one chant will be selected for use within the same psalm. There are several such examples here and in Psalm 18, with its fifty-one verses, no fewer than four separate chants are involved, one of them – by Alan Gray – being used for three separate sections of the psalm.
It seems to me that Andrew Millington has selected the chants with discrimination and has married up texts and music very well. Mind you, one would expect no less from a musician so steeped in Anglican liturgy. Some of the chants are less interesting than others – in general I feel this applies to those by the earlier composers such as John Goss though the chant by Reg Moore, to which Psalm 5 is sung isn’t terribly interesting either – the other Moore chants engaged my attention more strongly.
It’s instructive to see how more recent composers have respected the musical tradition of chant while injecting just a little bit of what I might call twentieth century spice. Millington’s own chants are good in this regard and it’s good to hear also the work of musicians such as Philip Moore and Humphrey Clucas. Michael Dawson may have been only eleven years old when he penned the chant that is used for the first part of Psalm 9 but his music justifies fully its inclusion: the chant is assured and right in the idiom. I like the modest harmonic “crunch” at the end of the third of his four-bar phrases. One of my own favourites among this collection is Martin How’s gentle chant, to which Psalm 16 is sung.
As I commented earlier, Andrew Millington selects the chants very well. The Philip Moore chant for Psalm 4 sustains the mood established in Millington’s own chant – for men’s voices alone – to Psalm 3 and as both psalms are prescribed for the same liturgy – Morning Prayer on the first day of the month – that’s as they could well be heard during an actual service. Even better, Millington manages well the changes between chants within individual psalms. This is particularly the case in Psalm 18, where no less than four chants are deployed and each complements very well the words which they illustrate.
The performances will give pleasure, I think. The singing of the Exeter choir is good, if not entirely flawless, and the psalmody is clearly rooted very firmly in their musical DNA. Millington has carefully schooled them in how to project the psalm texts without the chants sounding mechanical. Diction is good, though since the language of the psalms is complex it is as well that Priory’s booklet includes all the words. In short, we hear a very good cathedral choir in action on this disc.
Accompanying the choir is Paul Morgan, who retired a few weeks after this recording was made after forty-one years unbroken service to Exeter Cathedral as Assistant Organist and Organist. The fruits of such experience are readily apparent in this recording. He understands instinctively that the organist’s role is generally that of discreet accompanist but that, occasionally, something more illustrative is required. I love, for example, the splendidly growling low pedal notes he deploys at verse 13 of Psalm 18. These are fully justified by the text:
‘The Lord also thundered out of heaven, and the Highest gave his thunder: hailstones and coals of fire.’
That’s but one of a number of imaginative touches that Morgan brings to the accompaniments, enhancing the text while not acting as a distraction.
Priory’s presentation is up to the label’s high standards. The recorded sound is good – Neil Collier has a lifetime’s experience of recording choir and organs in ecclesiastical acoustics – and the documentation is comprehensive.
Despite the merits of the original set of recordings it’s good that Priory is revisiting the psalter. The series has been auspiciously launched in Exeter and it is to be hoped that further volumes will soon follow.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Psalm 1 "Blessed is the Man" by John Goss
Paul Morgan (Organ)
Exeter Cathedral Choir
Psalm 4 "Hear me when I call" by Philip Moore
Paul Morgan (Organ)
Exeter Cathedral Choir
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