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.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.
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 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.