Psalms SIGCD721

The Psalms
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
James Anderson-Besant, Glen Dempsey, George Herbert (organ)
rec. 2018-22, Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge

The Psalms have been at the centre of Christian and Jewish worship for thousands of years. There can’t be a single person of faith who doesn’t adore their rawness, their empathy, their struggle with mankind’s relationship to God; and there are many more people with no faith who admire their insights into the human condition. They’re particularly at the centre of the Anglican tradition of worship. Right from Cranmer’s first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 there has been a Psalm for every day, placed at the centre of the worship service. The chanting of the Psalm, both spoken by the congregation and sung by the choir, speaks to the continuity of a tradition that is nearly as old as the Anglican church itself, and the tradition of doing it together speaks of a desire to bind the community of God together.

Much as I adore the Psalms, however, I wasn’t looking forward to a whole disc of chants, even when it’s sung by a choir like this that sits at the very apex of that choral tradition. Wouldn’t a whole disc become repetitious or uninvolving? Not a bit of it. From the very first track on this disc, much to my surprise, I found myself not only enjoying the glorious sound of these performances, but becoming completely gripped by them in their beauty and their drama.

That’s surely because the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge is one of those choirs that is so indelibly steeped in the English Psalm tradition that they convey melting beauty and unshakeable authority with every syllable. It goes without saying that they miss nary a beat nor a syllable of the actual settings. You can take that for granted because, during university term time at least, they do this literally every day. No; the really remarkable thing is how much feeling they pour into the phrasing and the words so that each Psalm isn’t just a heartfelt prayer, it’s a miniature drama.

The really wonderful thing is the choir’s diction. It’s so clear that pretty much everything is intelligible and, while the texts are provided in the booklet, I rarely found myself needing to use them. Furthermore, the singers bite and chew into every syllable so as to convey meaning and spiritual power. They seem particularly to enjoy the verses of glorification (“At the brightness of his presence his clouds removed: hail-stones and coals of fire”) or of condemnation (“The proud are robbed, they have slept their sleep!”), and there’s a mischievous joy in denouncing the tyrant in Charles Hylton Stewart’s setting of Psalm 52.

Andrew Nethsingha’s shaping of every phrase is wonderful, of course, but he does this every day so it should be. The recording team captures the acoustic of the chapel as expertly as they always seem to on these St John’s releases, and the organ is blended perfectly with the voices. Furthermore, they give the impression of the whole disc unfolding as one event in one span, which is no mean feat considering that the disc was made in five recording sessions over a five-year duration. Considering the choir’s high turnover of undergraduates, this would effectively have been five different choirs, and it’s equally a testament to Nethsingha’s methods of training and performance that the sound of the choir is so consistent throughout all that.

And the music itself? There’s such a spread of variety here that it hangs together very effectively as a disc. On the one hand you get upbeat optimism in Henry Gauntlett’s Psalm 18, but there is woe-laden sorrow in Prendergast’s Psalm 88. Melancholy understatement characterizes Hemmings’ Psalm 85, while Skeats’ Psalm 139 is intimate, affectionate and very inward; indeed, the final Gloria is a special delight here. There’s plenty of distinctive colour, too. Attwood’s Psalm 29, for example, makes effective – and sparing – use of unison to evoke God’s majesty, while Psalm 121 is possessed of lovely inner detail, every inflection sensitively pointed like a prayer which, of course, it is.

The booklet is excellent, too. Next to the text of each Psalm is a miniature biography of its composer, and there are biographies of the different organists featured. There are also some marvellous reflections on the nature of the Psalms be that spiritually and historically (from the college Chaplain) or musically (from Nethsingha). Put all this together and you have a rather wonderful experience spiritually, historically and, of course, musically.

Simon Thompson

18 ‘I will love thee, O Lord’
99 ‘The Lord is King’
85 ‘Lord, thou art become gracious’
76 ‘In Jewry is God known’
52 ‘Why boastest thou thyself, thou tyrant’
88 ‘O Lord God of my salvation’
29 ‘Bring unto the Lord, O ye mighty’
2 ‘Why do the heathen so furiously rage’
139 ‘O Lord, thou hast searched me out’ (omit vv. 19-22)
148 ‘O praise the Lord of heaven’
121 ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’
122 ‘I was glad when they said unto me’
123 ‘Unto thee lift I up mine eyes’

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