Hyperion 10: #8. The Psalms of David / Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Scott

I think on first acquaintance with the Psalms in their Anglican manifestation, i.e. sung to harmonic chants, if I can remember that far back, I was not a receptive listener. In a bad performance the effect of these repeated chord patterns can be dull, particularly if the choir fails to take the trouble to illuminate the words. I’m afraid that with hymns I still often find myself glossing over the words, preoccupied with the tune. That’s a habit that repetition ought to eliminate: once you’ve got the notes, you can concentrate on what the words mean.

With the Psalms – especially with the Coverdale Psalter – one misses so much by failing to consider the text. You don’t have to have faith to see something tremendous in “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint : my heart also in the midst of my body is even like melting wax” (Psalm 22) or “I am become like a pelican in the wilderness : and like an owl that is in the desert” (Psalm 102). The poetry is evident in every line. Just a momentary glance at a phrase like “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine indignation : neither chasten me in thy displeasure” (Psalm 6) will transport me back years into the past like the twitch upon the thread Waugh writes about in Brideshead. Maybe the effect of the language is so profound because we (by which I mean I) have become accustomed to devotional writing being merely fit for purpose, rather than beautiful in its own right like the Book of Common Prayer.

To get back on track. This is a complete recording of the St Paul’s Cathedral Psalter. There’s no danger of the Choir of St Paul’s glossing over the words: each phrase is perfectly nuanced and executed, and their clarity of diction mostly overcomes the cavernous acoustic. That acoustic is a reason some critics have resisted the recording. I think the sense of place it gives can add immeasurably to the atmosphere, and don’t find harmonic definition obscured, though the resonance does mean that it is necessary for the choir on occasion to employ slower tempi than might be thought desirable.

The entirety of the recordings, which were made over a period of about seven years, date from John Scott’s tenure at St Paul’s, and he is more than ably assisted by his two organists, Andrew Lucas and Huw Williams, whose perceptive embellishments are all one could hope for. The choice of chants is a pleasing combination of the standard and the unexpected, the old and the new. The familiar Stanford chants for Psalms 147 and 150, for instance, are present and correct. I have very fond memories of singing the Cooke chant for Psalm 7 in an Eton Choral Course evensong at King’s several years ago. A treasure trove.

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