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Psalms (Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge)

Choir of St John’s College Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha (Signum Classics)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Works by Attwood, Crotch, Gauntlett, Hemmings, Prendergast, Christopher Robinson, Whitlock et al
Choir of St John’s College Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha
Signum Classics SIGCD721   51:48 mins

Why sing psalms when they can be said, or read? That is one of many questions addressed in the outstandingly informative booklet of this new St John’s College recording, where director of music Andrew Nethsingha’s essay is a potted masterclass in how psalms work as music, and why they matter.

In performance – if that is the right word in a liturgical context – Nethsingha treats each psalm as a mini tone-poem of vocal affects, each line inflected in distinctive ways to elicit meaning and emotion from the biblical text. The 19 verses of Psalm 18, for example, are rich in local incident. The chant is Hine and Gauntlett’s, and abrupt dynamic shifts contrast the howl of nature in verses 12-15 with the divine deliverance which follows. The vowel in ‘breath’ is expressively extended, and words like ‘quaked’ and ‘shook’ have their onomatopoeic consonants sharpened.

There is a danger, of course, that too much pointing and parsing of text can sound pernickety. Nethsingha largely avoids this, and his insistence on crisp articulation pays major dividends in a feisty reading of Psalm 52, where the come-uppance of the boastful tyrant is relished by the St John’s singers.

The sessions for this disc spanned four years, and it’s a credit to Nethsingha’s mentoring of the three organ scholars featured that their accompaniments are so consistently insightful.

Terry Blain