18 Nov 2007

The Oxford Psalms

Founded in Oxford in the early 1990’s, the ensemble Charivari Agréable looks to seventeenth-century composers with Oxford connections as the basis for their recent recording, “The Oxford Psalms.”

In the case of William Child, the Oxford tie includes degrees from the University; in the case of William Lawes and George Jeffreys, the relocation of Charles I’s court to Oxford would bring them to the “city of spires.” (Lawes also served the Royalist cause during the Civil War—with tragic results—in an Oxford-based regiment.) Several of the composers, such as Matthew Locke and John Blow, provided music at one time or another for the “University Act,” Oxford’s Encaenia, at which honorary degrees are conferred. Henry Purcell’s connection is more distant: his brother, Daniel, was the organist at Magdalen College.

The music is, in the main, settings of metrical psalm texts, a significant reminder that although metrical psalms might seem to have a Puritan resonance in the popular mind, they were sung in both the Royal and Puritan orbits. The musical sophistication of the settings recorded here is a strong contrast to the simple congregational singing of psalm tunes, however, and this distinction is one that falls along the Royalist-Puritan divide. (The Lawes psalms unusually present the composed settings in juxtaposition with the unison “common tune,” blurring the borders between the traditions. And though these juxtapositions are unusual, they recall both a degree of traditional psalmodic antiphony and also in alternatim practice.)

If the recording is interesting in helping to chart the history of the metrical psalm, it is also interesting in the way it bridges the gaps in our understanding of the verse anthem. The verse anthem’s reliance on solo singing is well known in early examples from Byrd and Gibbons; equally well known s the flourishing of the verse anthem in the large-scale “symphony anthems” of Pelham Humfrey, Blow, and Purcell towards the end of the seventeenth century. With the examples here from Child and Lawes we can fill in the space between and gain a new appreciation of the form’s continuity.

Many of the psalm settings are rhetorical in familiar ways, with ample text painting and affective musical contrasts to underscore the common antitheses in the psalms. The solo writing is occasionally declamatory, occasionally tuneful, but often it falls between these poles. In the later examples—Purcell, Locke, and Jeremiah Clarke—the lines unfold with an assurance that is perhaps less apparent in the earlier works, though the earlier pieces are no less interesting or demanding for it.

The singers embrace this repertory with gusto. In certain passages, such as “Such is his power, that is his wrath he made the earth to quake” (Ps. XVIII/1), the strength of the vocal sound serves well. However, some will find the tenor sound overly vibrant, I suspect, and miss the clarity of simpler timbres. Of the three singers--Rodrigo del Pozo and Simon Beston, tenors, and Nicholas Perfect, bass—it is Perfect who offers the most memorable singing, not least with his unflaggingly impressive profundity! (And with texts like “who shall worship thee, O Lord, in the infernal pit?” [Psalm VI], the profundity is both unavoidable and delicious.)

Various instrumental pieces are interwoven among the psalms. Susanne Heinrich’s elegant viol playing in a set of divisions by Frances Withy is especially well done, with compellingly contoured, tapered sounds. The counterpoint between the instrumental pieces and the vocal works is a welcome one, and one might have wished for perhaps a more generous allotment to the players.

“The Oxford Psalms” is a recording of interest, certainly, and a performance rendered with care.

Steven Plank