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"The Oxford Psalms"

Charivari Agréable
Dir: Kah-Ming Ng
rec: August 22 - 24, 2006, Toddington (Gloucestershire, UK), St Andrew's Church
Signum Records - SGCD093 (© 2007) (78'28")

anon: Miserere [3]; anon/Christopher Simpson (c1606-1669): A Ground for ye Harpsicord; John Blow (1648-1708): As on Euphrates' shady banks; Albertus Bryne (c1621-1668): Voluntary; William Child (1606/07-1697): The First Set of Psalmes of III Voyces (extr: Psalm II: Why doth the Heathen so furiously rage; Psalm X: Why standest thou for far off; Psalm XI: In the Lord I put my trust; Psalm IX: I Will give thanks unto Thee) [1]; Jeremiah Clarke (c1674-1707): Blest be those sweet Regions; George Jeffreys (c1610-1685): Praise the Lord, O my soule; William Lawes (1602-1645): Gloria Patri et Filio [2]; The humble suite of a sinner: O Lord, of whom I do depend [2]; The Lamentation: O Lord, in thee is all my trust [2]; Psalm VI: Lord, in thy wrath [2]; Psalm XVIII/1: O God my strength and fortitude [2]; Psalm LI/2: Cast me not, Lord [2]; Matthew Locke (c1623-1677): In the beginning, O Lord; Let God arise; Henry Purcell (1659-1695): Blessed is he that considereth the poor (Z 7); Since God so tender a regard (Z 143); Frances Whithy (c1645-1727): Divisions in F

(Sources: [1] Child, The First Set of Psalmes of III Voyces, 1639; [2] W Lawes, Psalmes for 1, 2 and 3 partes, n.d.; [3] Parthenia In-violata, c1624

Rodrigo Del Pozo, Simon Beston, tenor; Nicholas Perfect, bass; Susanne Heinrich, bass viol, consort bass; Richard Sweeney, theorbo; Kah-Ming Ng, harpsichord, organ

The ensemble Charivari Agréable is not just one of many groups in the early music scene. A magazine labelled it "one of the most original and versatile groups on the Early Music scene today". This disc testifies that once more. It pays attention to an aspect of English music of the 17th century which has been almost completely overlooked so far. Its importance is twofold: firstly it presents religious repertoire written for domestic use, whereas most recordings concentrate on music which was to be performed in cathedrals or at court. Secondly it shows that the Italian style made an earlier entrance in England than one is inclined to think.

The Book of Psalms has always played an important role in the Christian Church. Whereas in the Middle Ages non-biblical texts were frequently used in the liturgy it was the Reformation which restored the predominance of Psalms. And as the Reformers believed not only professional singers should sing in church but also the congregation, poets and composers collaborated in creating metrical psalms in the vernacular, which could be sung by common believers. The best-known example is the Huguenot Psalter which came into existence in the late 16th century.

In England several collections of metrical Psalms were published from the end of the 16th century on. The present disc contains a number of compositions on Psalm texts, some of which are also metrical. The title is explained by Kah-Ming Ng in the booklet: "Most of the composers have some connection with Oxford, be it academic, professional, or, more tenuously, fraternal." It focuses on "sacred songs and non-liturgical anthems for domestic consumption, 'fitt for private Chappels or other private meetings', to cite a rubric from William Child's only publication The First Set of Psalmes of III Voyces (1639)". Religious music specifically written for domestic use is a phenomenon which wasn't restricted to England: in Germany a large amount of this kind of music was written, in particular under the influence of Pietism.

As far as the repertoire on this disc is concerned, the interesting thing is that here we find early influences of the modern Italian style which were largely absent in repertoire written for cathedrals or in secular music. Matthew Locke wasn't the only one who had a rather negative view on Italian - or any non-English - music as this quotation shows: "I never yet saw any foreign composition worthy an English man's transcribing." Therefore it is quite remarkable that William Child, one of the English composers of the 17th century whom isn't paid much attention to, wrote that his psalms were "newly composed after the Italian way". And the pieces performed here show that he mastered that style quite well. It is a shame that only a small proportion of his collection is performed here. But the rest of the disc is equally interesting, for instance the compositions of William Lawes. They come from his collection Psalmes for 1, 2 and 3 partes, to the comon tunes. The reference to "common tunes" has given rise to the suggestion these psalms could have been sung in church, but there is no firm evidence of this. Fact is that alongside free composed passages for solo voices Lawes also gives a simple melody, which seem meant to be sung by a congregation, and is performed here with the three voices singing unisono.

The Italian influence, which even appears in Locke's music, is reflected in three things: firstly the three-part texture, in the way of the Italian trio sonata, which results in settings for three voices, mostly alto, tenor and bass, secondly the addition of a basso continuo part, and thirdly the declamatory character of the vocal parts. Of course, Henry Purcell is the best-known representative of the true baroque style in England in the 17th century. He composed a number of devotional songs, two of which are recorded here. Neither these nor the piece by the hardly known George Jeffreys are written on metrical texts.

The latest piece on this disc is by Jeremiah Clarke, who was a highly gifted composer who could have had a great career if he hadn't had a melancholic character which made him commit suicide. His hymn Blest be those sweet Regions was written as he was sworn in – together with William Croft – as Gentleman-Extraordinary of the Chapel Royal. This hymn "is a veritable cantata in miniature, featuring an aria-like refrain, around which is weaved arioso passages, presaging the arrival of Handel's Italianate idiom".

Listening to the programme on this disc one gets a fairly good impression of how the Italian style gradually gained ground in a part of composing and music making which took place more or less out of the limelight, and as a result is largely overlooked in our time. It is the great virtue of this recording that this part of English music history is saved from oblivion. And I am happy to add that the performers are giving splendid interpretations of this repertoire. Sometimes I had liked a little less vibrato, in particular from Simon Beston, but on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed the performances of singers and players. In the unisono passages the three voices blend very well. All singers are delivering the texts in true declamatory style, without exaggerating. They are well aware of the fact that this music was written for domestic use, which makes a display of virtuosity inappropriate. It was a good decision to use a tenor for the upper (alto) part, and Rodrigo Del Pozo has exactly the right type of voice for this.

In between some instrumental items are played, again rather uncommon pieces, performed here with imagination by the instrumentalists of the ensemble.

I strongly recommend this disc, which isn't only of historical importance, but also of great musical value. I hope that this kind of repertoire is going to be explored more extensively in the near future.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Charivari Agréable

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