Thursday, August 16, 2007

Psalm-chant recordings



When I write about singing the psalms, as I did here, or when I do a psalm-chant gig, people ask about good psalm-chant recordings. And I get paralyzed. I wish there were a slew of recordings to which I could point. Of course there's an abundance of recorded Gregorian chant, but not much is in English or involves the psalms. And there's an abundance of recorded Anglican chant, sung by English cathedral choirs. Indeed, you can get the whole psalter, as recorded by the choir of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, on the Hyperion label. But much recorded Anglican chant sounds -- to these ears -- rather bloodless. The English choral tradition is less heavy with men's voices than, say, the Russian tradition, and the English tradition in most cases continues to favor boys' voices on top. I go to a little conference every year where we use Anglican chants to sing, for example, the Te Deum and the Beatitudes. But we sing them a good deal more vigorously and enthusiastically than what you'll hear on most recordings. I don't know of any recorded Anglican chant that sounds like what we do there.

Yes, that's the problem: I don't know many recordings of which to say, "Here's exactly the sound we're looking for."

Here are a few things I do enjoy:

The Divine Liturgy, St. Vladimir's Liturgical Chorale, David Drillock directing (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press). Orthodox worship is sung worship. I like its richer, deeper sound in comparison with the English tradition. This recording is in English and includes a couple of psalms or at least substantial psalm portions. You get the Lord's Prayer in Rimsky-Korsakov's setting, which is quite simple, and the Beatitudes. You also get Fr Alexander Schmemann singing "Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages" at the beginning, and he does not sing it the way many an Anglican cantor would -- as if he had a ping-pong ball stuck to the roof of his mouth.

The two Anglican chant recordings I like best are cheap and recent and better than their titles:

Psalms for the Soul and Psalms for the Spirit, Choir of St. John's, Elora, Noel Edison directing (Naxos). This Canadian choir uses clear-toned women instead of boys. I appreciate that the organ takes a back seat. You can actually hear and understand the choir. (Note: Not everything on these CDs is chant.) These recordings are available at iTunes.

Runner-up on Anglican chant: Psalms, Choir of Westminster Abbey, Martin Neary directing (Virgin). You can sample it at iTunes.

Lord, Open My Lips: Music for the Hours, by Cyprian Consiglio (Oregon Catholic Press). There are things to fault here -- I would like more vigor at points, and stronger voices among the cantors -- but in some ways this sounds closer than most recordings to what you might hear in your own church if you were doing this sort of thing. At least give credit where credit is due: The scriptural content of these three Catholic rites is higher than you get in a lot of evangelical worship. You can hear samples of every track at the link I've given.

As for myself, I am most drawn to the sound world of the Divine Liturgy CD.

Now, you may give each of these an audition and screw up your face at all of it. What then? Four things:
1. Listen again. Don't decide you don't like something after a single hearing. For the longest time, I'd listen to Brahms' Fourth Symphony, particularly the first movement, and think, "I just don't get this." I didn't like it. Now I love it. I love it as much as I love the rest of Brahms.

2. Use your imagination. Be open to the thought that, whatever your misgivings, something like this could be done and done well.

3. Honor the intent. Each form of chant represented here seeks to bend itself to the Scriptural text and give it pre-eminence.

4. Know that as you're reading this, someone in Africa or Asia or some other place is probably chanting a psalm, using cool African or Asian music that you and I haven't heard but might end up liking better than anything I've posted.
The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak drew on Czech folk melodies for his own work. He encouraged American composers to turn to black music for their inspiration. Could spirituals be an idiom worth exploring for psalm chant? Listen to Psalm 96 here.
The piece in the video above is the Lord's Prayer in a chant by the Russian composer Nikolai Kedrov Sr. (1871-1940). It's sung by the Youth Choir of Petcherskaja Lavra Kiev.

8 Comments:

Blogger matthew said...

Paul, thanks so much for this post - great resources. Having heard a tape of a BH vespers service, I was captivated. I personally found the Naxos Anglican psalm chants a bit insipid, and prefer these recordings by Sir Michael Willcocks: the sequence from Pss 146-150 is wonderful, and surprising vigorous and (almost!) virile. (The tracks directed by Sir Philip Ledger are nowhere near as good - pretty stodgy).

12:30 PM  
Blogger Neil Jeffers said...

I disagree that Anglican chant lacks vigour. When I used to sing at St John's, Oxford, our chanting was often very earthy - we always tried to get into the spirit of the individual psalm, even though most of the choir were atheists.

One of the big difficulties with recorded Anglican chants is the venues. When making CDs in acoustics like St Paul's Cathedral, or even King's Cambridge, it is hard to avoid flabby, washy mess, unless you sing so slowly that any momentum is lost. I rarely buy recordings from St Paul's precisely for that reason, though to sit there during a service is auditory overload!

10:35 AM  
Blogger Paul Buckley said...

Greetings, Rev. Jeffers!

Thank you for your comments. I agree: Anglican chant doesn't lack vigour per se. Perhaps I should have italicized recorded when I wrote that a lot of recorded Anglican chant sounds bloodless. As you point out, the fault often lies in the recording acoustics. With that in mind, I'd started to add another caveat to my list of four: Understand that all this music can sound much different in person and in the context of the liturgy. I remember one particular Evensong at Westminster Abbey when the choir sang Psalm 80 ("Hear, O Shepherd of Israel") with a chant by J. Turle. I was sitting in the loft, of course, and the sound was nothing if not vigorous.

(I have to say, though, that I still prefer women's voices to boys'.)

Greetings to you, too, Matthew! Thanks for the heads-up on the Willcocks recordings.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Martha Elaine Belden said...

hi paul!
thanks for your wonderful comment over at my blog today. and never hesitiate to tell me what you think... new reader or not :) i really appreciate your encouragement... and as soon as i'm not at work, i'll take a look at your prayer of thanksgiving.

i'm afraid i'm not too familiar with much anglican chant... but i do listen to the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos every night as i sleep. i know it's not in english and i have no idea what they're saying... but i love it. there really is no more soothing sound in my opinion (although i'll admit i've had roommates in the past who i'm fairly certain were concerned i might have joined a cult when they heard it through the crack under my door... oh well).

i'll have to check out some of your suggestions. it would be amazing to hear it in a language i could understand.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’ve come to your site from a comment you made at another site that I liked.

I’ve long had an interest in psalm-singing and have experience with Anglican chant, Genevan psalms, and psalms sung to Gregorian chant tones. If you want vigorous psalm-singing, try some CDs called Salm, Vol 1 and 2, Gaelic Psalms From the Hebrides. This style is said to have influenced black gospel music through 19th century Scottish immigrants to the South. Another psalm CD I’ve enjoyed, though it might be difficult to find, is Psalms of Scotland with the Sottish Philharmonic Singers with John Langdon and Ian McCrorie. The words are clear and the singing comes across as both brisk and heart-felt.

By the way, it’s Sir David Willcocks, not Michael Willcocks. And I would echo Jeffers’ comments about St. John’s; its choral tradition under George Guest was a little ‘earthier’ than Kings’, I think.

Pilgrim Kate

5:49 PM  
Blogger Jamie said...

Hi, Paul!

I have built a chant from Psalm 5 that we use in our church in Grande Prairie, and your comment on using other folk styles to inform our chant style made me think of it. When I first played it for our congregation several of the men came to me afterward and said "Gordon Lightfoot!"... They were reminded of the Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.

Unintentional, but I can hear it too.

8:05 PM  
Blogger Angie said...

I recently discovered a beautiful piece by Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov, "Salvation is Created." Since you know a lot about Russian liturgical music you may already be familiar with it, but here is an audio and sheet music sample.

8:33 PM  
Blogger Hein Bertram said...

We have such a lot in common, from England to Canada to South Africa. Recently, I had the privilege to hear what could arguably be regarded as Anglican with the rich bass tones of Russian Orthodox: An Anglican church in Bhekuzulu, Vryheid (Kwazulu-Natal) singing Mattins in IsiZulu on Anglican Chant. It is so rich and sonorous that it takes a second or two to recognise the chant. Beautiful!
I still have to get hold of their vicar to ask whether I may make a recording to put onto YouTube (and maybe talk to a recording studio somewhere).
God bless!

9:18 AM  

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