For the fifth volume in their new ‘Psalms of David’ series Priory have gone to Lincoln Cathedral. Guiding us through the psalm prescribed for the morning of the thirteenth day of the month (Psalm 68) to those for the fifteenth morning (Psalms 75-77) is the cathedral choir directed by Aric Prentice. Prentice has been the cathedral’s Director of Music and Master of the Choristers since 2003. At the organ console is Colin Walsh, who served as Organist and Master of the Choristers between 1988 and 2003 since when he has been the cathedral’s Organist Laureate.
Walsh’s contribution is one of the two leading reasons for the success of these performances. At every turn his accompaniments are interesting and imaginative, as is his use of colour. Clearly, he knows the Lincoln organ intimately and he uses its resources with flair and imagination to illustrate, illuminate and add interest to every verse. He seems to find a different colour or registration almost for each verse of each psalm - though not in a way that draws attention to his playing and away from the words. His are easily the best organ accompaniments that we’ve heard so far in this series.
The other reason for success is the way in which Aric Prentice gets his singers to deliver the chants. He is equally imaginative, using dynamics and the Decani/Cantores division of the choir very intelligently and encouraging expressive singing from the choir. Clearly a good deal of thought has gone into the preparation of these psalms.
That’s just as well because, frankly, several of the chants on this CD are a bit routine and dutiful. We read in the booklet that the cathedral ‘has for some time favoured a more tried and trusted selection of chants’. If this present programme is representative that means a preponderance from the late-eighteenth century and the nineteenth century. Of the fourteen musicians who contribute chants to this collection the lives of only six extended beyond 1900 and only one of them is still alive. This contrasts with previous volumes in the series where there has been more of a mix of ‘ancient and modern’.
However, the way
in which this music is presented tells quite a different story. So, for example, Henry Smart’s chant for Psalm 72 isn’t especially remarkable but it is sung - and accompanied - with no little imagination. Smart also furnishes the chant for Psalm 73 and this struck me as pretty routine, even dull; but there’s variety in the way each verse is delivered and that redeems things and brings the psalm to life.
The programme opens with two fairly lengthy psalms, one of which is Psalm 67. This begins in an oppressive, gloomy mood with George William Chard’s chant. That mood persists for what seems like a very long time, the singing slow and expressive and the accompaniment often sparing. It’s not until 7:47 that we hear a change. Hylton Stewart’s minor-key chant, which takes over, is still dark in tone but the change is welcome - perhaps overdue - and the organ becomes more prominent. It’s not until verse 30 (9:25) that the psalm text warrants a change to a major-key chant, also by Stewart. Though I admire the delivery of this psalm I think a more interesting selection and/or the inclusion of at least one more chant during the first twenty-two verses might have been beneficial.
Psalm 71 is sung to two chants, one in the minor key, one in the major, by George Bennett, who was the Organist at Lincoln from 1895 to 1930 - he’s described as ‘formidable’ in the booklet. The chant to which the first 11 verses are sung is taken expansively and with expression; the change to a major-key is entirely in keeping with the words. Of much more recent Lincoln vintage was Philip Marshall, who served the cathedral as Organist for twenty years (1966-86). One of his chants is used for the middle verses of Psalm 74, which offers a rare example in this programme of a psalm sung to twentieth-century chants. The psalm is mainly penitential in tone and the minor-key example by Lindsay Gray is most appropriate. Here is another instance of imaginative colouring by Colin Walsh. Marshall’s major-key work comes like a brief ray of sunshine as the psalmist’s mood cheers for a while before Gray’s chant is restored as the tone of the words darkens once more.
The Lincoln choir sings very well throughout the programme apart from some occasional untidiness of ensemble. Priory have recorded them and the organ very well and the booklet is up to the label’s usual high standards.
Even if the selection is a little less compelling than in some earlier volumes the care and thought that has gone into the delivery of these psalms ensures that this disc is another strong contribution to the series.
Reviews of earlier releases in this series
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
Benjamin COOKE (1734-1793), John JOLLY (1794-1838), Robert H. GROOME (1810-1889)
Psalm 68 [12:04]
George William CHARD (1765-1849), Charles Hylton STEWART (1884-1932)
Psalm 69 [11:49]
Henry John GAUNTLETT (1805-1876)
Psalm 70 [2:32]
George John BENNETT (1863-1930)
Psalm 71 [8:17]
Henry Thomas SMART (1813-1879)
Psalm 72 [6:16]
Henry Thomas SMART, Thomas Sanders DUPUIS (1733-1796)
Psalm 73 [7:47]
P. Lindsay GRAY (b. 1953), J. Philip MARSHALL (1921-2005)
Psalm 74 [7:54]
Myles Birket FOSTER (1851-1922)
Psalm 75 [3:37]
Stephen ELVEY (1805-1860)
Psalm 76 [3:32]
Edward Cuthbert BAIRSTOW (1874-1946)
Psalm 77 [6:30]