The Psalms St Johns College Nethsinga Signum SIGDCD721

The Psalms
James Anderson Besant, Glen Dempsey, George Herbert (organ)
The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
rec. 2018-2022, Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge
Texts included

This is the latest disc in the extended and excellent series of recordings for Signum Classics by Andrew Nethsingha and the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. When I started to draft this review, I was intending to say that it may also be the last, unless there are some more recordings ‘in the can’, because Mr Nethsingha is due to take up his new post as Director of Music at Westminster Abbey in January 2023. Happily, before I’d finished writing I spotted a tweet from him in which he said that another album will be released in July 2023 devoted entirely to 21st century pieces, including no less than eight commissioned by the College. That’s something to look forward to.

Over the years I’ve heard a good number of discs devoted in whole or in part to the singing of Anglican psalm chants. Indeed, I had the pleasant task of reviewing a set of discs containing all 150 psalms issued by Priory Records a few years ago. In addition, I’m no stranger to hearing the chanting of psalms as part of the service of Choral Evensong. However, I struggle to recall an instance when I’ve heard psalms chanted in such a vivid and intelligent fashion as is to be heard on this CD.

Nethsingha and his choir set out their stall right at the outset in Psalm 18, from which we hear verses 1-19. There’s a good deal of dramatic story-telling, for example in verses 7 to 10 and again in verses 12 to 15. But in the midst of all this Nethsingha does not neglect the opportunity for a fine dynamic contrast in verse 11. Incidentally, the chants to which this psalm are sung are by Henry Gauntlett (1805-1876) and, from verse 16 onwards, William Hine (1687-1730). Anyone assuming that the Gauntlett chant will be full of Victorian stuffiness will be (pleasantly) surprised by Nethsingha’s vivid way with the chant. Hine’s chant is simpler in utterance and proves to be a good contrast, suiting the trusting mood of the last four verses that are sung.

This first psalm acts as a good harbinger of what is to follow: adroitly chosen chants which complement the scriptural verses very well, added to an intelligent and perceptive musical way that the musicians have of communicating the text.

As I said, I think the chants are chosen adroitly. I especially liked two by Christopher Robinson (b 1936) who was Andrew Nethsingha’s predecessor-but-one as Organist and Director of Music at St John’s; he held the post from 1992 to 2003. I wonder if his triple chant for Psalm 2 was penned specifically for that psalm. The chant is sophisticated in design and expression and Nethsingha uses it to bring out all the different facets of the psalm. Robinson’s chant for Psalm 148 is, like most of the others on this disc, a double chant. The music is full of melodic and harmonic interest. The grandeur of the psalmist’s verses is brought out both in Robinson’s chant and the way in which it is sung here.

It’s interesting to hear the chant by Ivor Atkins to which Psalm 148 is sung. These are the words which Parry used in his great Coronation anthem, I was glad. Atkins’ chant is completely different to the majestic grandeur of the Parry anthem, but it is no less valid a companion for the words. I was interested to learn from the notes that this chant was a favourite of the late Sir Stephen Cleobury, who at the outset of his career was an Organ Scholar at St John’s.

Another former Organ Scholar of the College was Percy Whitlock (1903-1946), who is now best remembered for his organ music. His chant, to which Psalm 99 is sung, is rightly described in the booklet as “understated yet beautiful” The psalm itself is a humble prayer for mercy and deliverance; I love the poetic way in which it is sung here; Nethsingha leads a performance that is measured in pace and prayerful.

There’s a good deal of contrast within the selection of chants. For example, Psalm 88 is described in the notes as one of “unremitting misery and anguish”. The chant used here is by William Prendergast (1868-1933). The choir sings it in a very subdued and deeply expressive fashion and I was struck that even the ‘Glory be’ sounds very humble. However, that’s followed immediately by Psalm 29 for which a chant by Thomas Attwood (1765-1838) is used. The chant is a strong one and it’s performed robustly, which is right in keeping with the words.

At the end of the disc, we hear three consecutive psalms. First comes Psalm 121, which is sung to the famous ‘call and answer’ unaccompanied chant by Walford Davies. This “uncomplicated song of trust in God” is given an exquisite, caring performance. Then comes the Atkins chant for Psalm 122 to which I’ve already made reference. Finally, we hear Psalm 123 to a chant by William Crotch (1775-1847). The psalm contains only four verses. You might have expected a collection such as this to end with an upbeat, extrovert psalm – perhaps Psalm 150 – and chant but Andrew Nethsingha is much more subtle than that: instead, he leaves us with a quiet and thoughtful psalm, which seems just right.

I should say a word about the organ accompaniments. When I hear psalms chanted, I always have my ears peeled for little counter-melodies and bits of additional colour and intrigue from the organ loft. The key thing, though, is that such touches should be sparing and subtle, enhancing the chanting at key moments. Happily, that’s consistently the case here. Because the psalms were recorded on no fewer than five different dates between April 2018 and January 2022 three different Organ Scholars are heard accompanying the choir. All acquit themselves expertly, playing with great understanding.

As I’ve already indicated, the St John’s choir sings these psalm chants marvellously and with great intelligence. Andrew Nethsingha has now stepped down from his post at St John’s; his last service there took place on 1 December. It’s recently been announced that his successor will be Christopher Gray, currently the Director of Music at Truro Cathedral. Gray will undoubtedly put his own stamp on this fine choir but this disc provides yet more proof that he will be building on an exceptional legacy from Andrew Nethsingha. It will be fascinating to see how the choir develops under Christopher Gray, just as it will be equally fascinating to see how the excellent Westminster Abbey choir flourishes under the new leadership that Nethsingha will provide

One of the consistent features of the St John’s recordings that have come my way has been the excellence of the documentation. This latest release is no exception. The booklet contains a general introductory essay about the Book of Psalms by Rev, Andrew Hammond, the College Chaplain. He also contributes short notes on each of the chose psalms while the organist John Challenger furnishes succinct details about the composer of the chants to which each psalm is sung. As usual, though, at the heart of the booklet is an absorbing essay by Andrew Nethsingha. On this occasion he discusses such matters as how psalm chants should be pointed and, of especial relevance, gives us insights into how the psalmody developed at St John’s.

The recorded sound is very good indeed. It’s also remarkably consistent given that producer Chris Hazell and engineer Simon Eadon recorded the choir in five different sessions over four years.

This is another fine addition to the distinguished discography of Andrew Nethsingha and the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge.

John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson (December 2022)

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Henry Gauntlett / William Hine – I Will Love Thee, O Lord (Psalm 18)

Percy Whitlock – The Lord is King (Psalm 99)
Alan Hemmings – Lord, Thou Art Become Gracious (Psalm 85)
Robert Ashfield – In Jewry is God Known (Psalm 76)
Charles Hylton Stewart – Why Boastest Thou Thyself, Thou Tyrant (Psalm 52)
William Prendergast – O Lord God of My Salvation (Psalm 88)

Thomas Attwood – Bring Unto the Lord, O Ye Mighty (Psalm 29)
Christopher Robinson – Why Do the Heathen So Furiously Rage (Psalm 2)

Highmore Skeats Jnr – O Lord, Thou Hast Searched (Psalm 139)
Christopher Robinson – O Praise the Lord of Heaven (Psalm 148)

Henry Walford Davies – I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto the Hills (Psalm 121)
Ivor Atkins – I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me (Psalm 122)

William Crouch – Unto Thee Lift I Up Mine Eyes (Psalm 123)