The mainstay repertory for the psalms is the so-called “Anglican chant,” short, repeating, harmonic formulas that grew out of harmonized plainsong in the seventeenth century.
This present recording is a compilation of three LPs from the late 1960s and 1970s recorded by the famed Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, then, as now, among the most celebrated of Anglican choirs. In the 1960s, if the choir was celebrated, so too was its legendary Master, Sir David Willcocks, who brought their sound and interpretative subtlety to the level of a “golden age.” And with the psalms, no less than with anthem literature, his results were finely detailed, interpretatively rich renditions. So much so that the quip that the “Psalms of David” seemed equally apt for Biblical King and Cambridge Organist alike never seemed too great a stretch to the imagination! Accordingly, here is a generous helping of Anglican chant led by one of its greatest practitioners and his successor, Sir Philip Ledger.
There is much to admire. The performances aim at a variety that keeps the repetitive forms dynamic and alive to the images of the text without overwhelming the devotional priorities of liturgical recitation. To this end, discreet organ descants, frequent changes of registration, alternations of men and boys and unison and harmony are all applied with care. The declamatory naturalness of the chanting is particularly refined, bearing the stamp not only of close rehearsal, but especially of the daily singing of the repertory at evensong.
The chants are drawn in the main from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including chants composed by well-known composers (Stanford, Crotch, and Parry, for instance) and those whose names are known mostly to church musicians (Walmisley, Bairstow, and Barnby, for example). Forays into more modern chants are few. The lengths of the psalms vary considerably, and the heroic length of Ps. 78—seventy-three verses over fifteen minutes—is an impressive feat of endurance by any calculation.
All this said, I suspect the recording will have limited appeal. Anglophilic enthusiasts wishing to revel in the characteristic sounds of a beloved liturgical repertory will embrace these re-issues with unflagging delight. On the other hand, the more general listener may find in the recordings a beautiful curiosity of surprising quantity, but a quantity that in the end may outdistance his interest.