Psalm 23 on CD

Martin Anderson

This disc may will be an automatic acquisition for a large proportion of the readers of this magazine: four first recordings and the other two not otherwise available.

Elgar’s reaction to the First World War came under thorough scrutiny in Oh, my horses! (Elgar Editions, 2001, reviewed in [IRR] April 2002), edited by the same Lewis Foreman who has planned this CD and supplied the excellent booklet notes.

Elgarians will recognise With proud thanksgiving. In spring 1920 Elgar was asked to provide a shortened version of For the fallen, the opening section of Spirit of England, to accompany the unveiling of Lutyens’s Cenotaph that November, and he duly obliged, scoring the accompaniment for military band. But for some reason the piece wasn’t heard at the ceremony, and so Elgar rescored it for full orchestra and With proud thanksgiving was first heard in the [Royal] Albert Hall in May 1921. Proud it is, strong and noble; rather a pity that it’s over in seven minutes.

Bridge’s A prayer (1916-18) could do with being a little more concise: an opening meditation builds up to a powerful climax from which it dies away again, to close in gentle supplication—but it takes 17 minutes to do so, by which time we have got the point.

Howells’s Sine nomine (1922) begins as an ecstatic piece of nature mysticism (so much of his music is a tribute to his native Gloucestershire), reaching an emphatic Vaughan Williams-ish section halfway through; a soprano and a tenor vocalise above the orchestra, where the full scoring makes little concession to their presence (Foreman doesn’t think that in 1922 Howells would have been acquainted with Nielsen’s third symphony, though the proximity is indeed startling).

Dyson’s The blacksmiths (1934) provides a stark contrast. Foreman reveals that the German title on the vocal score is Die Waffenschmiede—not so much blacksmiths as gunsmiths, and Duson’s score rattles with timpani tattoos before a climax ushers in a funeral march. The bulk of the piece is given over to a powerful, angry depiction of the smiths at work, great bass drum whacks joining timpani in evoking their ‘huge hammers’; a dark, brooding coda accompanies the chorus’s final, reiterated ‘Christ save them’. This is the best piece of Dyson I have heard—it shows a muscular, angular quality to his music that’s not much on display elsewhere in his output.

Havergal Brian’s setting of Psalm 23 was one of the first of his works to be commercially recorded, on a 1975 CBS LP. Written c1904, to ought to have given notice that an important new voice had arrived in British music: it’s conceived on a large scale (Brian had soaked up several of Elgar’s oratorios and was actively involved in the Potteries choral scene); it’s confident, muscular, weighty—and highly original.

It has its feet on Elgar’s shoulders (and Elgar admired it), but some Brian fingerprints are already apparent, not least the march rhythms and the bold juxtaposition of sharply contrasted material. But instead of bringing Brian into the limelight, it met with silence, and wasn’t even performed until 1973, a year after the 96 year old composer had died. It’s time it was rather better known.

In such company Elgar’s meaty 1929 orchestration of Purcell’s Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei, a setting of psalm 3 from 1678, is a thoroughly enjoyable postlude, unfashionable savoury icing on a most nutritious cake.

The choral singing isn’t what it ought to be: textures are muddy, rhythms are imprecise, and the pitch sometimes sags, as occasionally with the soloists. The orchestral playing, too, has the hesitance which point to insufficient rehearsal time. The recorded sound is on the opaque side. So what? It’s a marvellous disc and I am delighted to have the music it brings. Strongly recommended.

International Record Review, April 2003 NL166

Newsletter, NL 166